Does atheism arise from wealth?

Connor Wood

Rich guy

A recent Alternet piece stirred up a storm by posing the question, “Is atheism an intellectual luxury for the wealthy?” The author, Chris Arnade, is a former Wall Street high roller who now works with the homeless in the Bronx. In his new job, he was surprised to find that the disadvantaged and destitute were far more devout than the educated folks he’d spent most of his life associating with. This realization inspired Arnade to wonder whether faith was something only the successful could afford to abandon. Ongoing research suggests that from a systemic perspective, there may be something to this – but not necessarily in the way Arnade describes.

Let me state my argument directly, because it’s not likely to be one most readers will agree with prima facie: namely, there’s good evidence that atheism and secularism are much more costly, in terms of sheer energy expenditure, than religious ways of organizing society. As I said, this may not make immediate sense; what about all the time that religious people spend on seemingly useless activities, like rituals, church, and prayers? From a secular perspective, these pursuits don’t exactly look like the most energy-efficient ways to spend one’s time. (Indeed, Bill Gates once said he wasn’t religious because there were more productive things to do with his Sunday mornings than sit in a church.)

But the burgeoning field of the evolutionary study of religion suggests that there may be sense behind all this apparent waste of effort.

Imagine you’re a biologist studying any other species. If you observe certain behaviors over and over again, you’ll probably conclude that there’s some practical reason for them – even if they seem absurd or pointless. Evolution is, after all, relatively parsimonious. Truly wasteful or destructive behaviors tend to get bred out of any natural population pretty quickly.

Take the rutting behavior of elk. During breeding season, male elk (bulls) do a very strange thing. Rather than directly wooing the actual females (who, after all, are the ones they’re hoping to mate with) the males turn their attention toward each other. In a show of aggression, the bulls charge at each other and lock antlers, pushing each other and grunting in a battle that’s part fencing, part wrestling, and very earnest indeed. These fights, called “sparring,” are typically between dominant bulls and challengers. They occasionally result in death of one of the animals, but usually the loser simply admits defeat and runs away. The victor then proceeds to mate with the herd’s cows.

This odd behavior is seen in elk all around the world, every single year. It has been this way for millennia. Sparring is clearly rooted in the basic genetics of the elk species. But from a purely utilitarian standpoint, it’s also clearly wasteful. Bulls lose a ton of energy during sparring. They often get injured. Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker just to walk up to the cows and try to woo them directly? That way the cows themselves could choose which bulls to mate with, and this would simplify the whole rutting process.

If you agree, congratulations. You’re smarter than nature.

No, I’m kidding. Nature’s smarter than you. In reality, sparring between elk bulls is the most efficient way for cows to determine which bulls to mate with. This is because sparring is a ritual that conveys a roughly honest signal of quality; bulls with exceptional stamina and strength nearly always win sparring matches, and so cows are well-advised to choose the winners of sparring contests as mates.

The sparring ritual seems wasteful, but it’s actually much more efficient than if each bull  tried to demonstrate his desirability to each cow. The yearly elk rut is, then, a perfect example of a phenomenon I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog: basic ritual helps to streamline and condense valuable social information, making events and relationships unambiguously clear for observers and participants alike.

Can the same logic be applied to the seemingly wasteful rituals or beliefs of traditional religious cultures? The answer is yes (although they don’t all have to do with rutting).

Anthropologist Rich Sosis of the University of Connecticut has shown that religious communities that require more ritual sacrifices from their members – such as doing daily Bible study or avoiding certain tasty foods – tend to survive longer. This is because costly rituals set up an investment barrier to membership in a religious community. If a religious community requires members to participate in lots of time-consuming rituals, then the people who don’t really want to be there will opt out, leaving behind only those who are really and truly committed. (I’ve written previously on this effect, here.) This means that partaking in a difficult or time-consuming ritual, like showing up every Sunday for church rain or shine, is an honest signal of one’s motivation to be in the group.

In contrast, more verbal, logical, and reason-based communication – something secular and cosmopolitan society valorizes – offers few good ways to honestly signal your commitment to a community. You can say you’re a committed member of so-and-so church or group, but this costs nothing to do. There’s no investment barrier. On the basis of words alone, therefore, it’s very difficult and energy-consuming for members of a community to figure out who’s actually committed and who isn’t.

Talk isn’t cheap, in other words – it’s expensive.

So ritual – an embodied style of communication that demands effortful physical displays and intuitive thinking – is often the most efficient means of showing who’s truly reliable and trustworthy. Thus, communities that shun ritual and rely on verbal, straightforward communication (such as the modern secular West) have to expend a ton of energy for everyone to understand what roles they’re supposed to play – and to ensure they actually carry out the responsibilities those roles entail.

If you’ve ever hung out in radical housing co-ops in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. These communities tend to be highly liberal, very well-educated, and low in religious adherence or traditional social values. There’s usually a ton of interpersonal negotiation, with members sitting around in kitchens patiently (and sometimes tensely) using explicit, direct, verbal communication to hash out disagreements and responsibilities. People talk about their feelings abundantly, sometimes for hours. The sheer business of communication can take up an awesome amount of co-op residents’ time and energy.

In this sense, residents of cooperative housing form a representative subsample of today’s Western culture. Increasingly secular and suspicious of traditional mores, Europeans and North Americans rely more and more on explicit, analytical communication and less on rituals to express their relationships and obligations to one another. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to hear serious commentators suggest that marriage – a ritual that makes crystal clear two people’s roles and and obligations to one another vis-à-vis a community – may be an obsolete concept. And questions of religion’s value are so commonplace that calling religion a misguided waste of time is a cottage industry.

And so here’s the thing: the reason we’re increasingly rejecting ritual and seemingly absurd religious beliefs is because we can afford to. The beneficiaries of a massive world economic system, we have the ample time, energy, and resources to spend on negotiating and re-negotiating our relationships, day in and day out. For the most part, we don’t have to spend our time planting, harvesting, herding animals, or doing eight hours of laundry a day. We’re free to redirect our energy into making social relationships explicit – which entails using analytical, logical, “system 2”-style processing to crunch an enormous amount of social data consciously.

Ritual, on the other hand, uses intuitive, holistic, “system 1”-style processing to establish and solidify social roles not by talking about them, but by demonstrating them. A wedding, for example, isn’t a symbol of two people getting married. It isn’t a discursive negotiation of their relationship. A wedding is two people getting married – the act is the same thing as the concept. In the same way, a bull elk that’s lost a ritualized sparring contest doesn’t negotiate his subordinate status with the victor by walking away. He demonstrates it.

To briefly talk semiotics, ritual keeps the signifier and the signified – the thing doing the communicating and the thing that’s being communicated – much, much closer to each other than analytical, verbal communication does. The extra distance between the signifier and signified means that verbal communication is always going to be more costly, in terms of energy input, than ritualized communication. This is even true in the physical brain, where explicit, analytical cognition – which fuels verbal discourse – uses up significantly more energy (in the form of glucose) than the intuitive cognition that powers ritualized interactions.

So is atheism a luxury of the wealthy? Yes. But this isn’t simply because the wealthy don’t need the comforts of a posited afterlife. It’s also because materially comfortable people have more energy to expend on negotiating their social worlds. Ritual and religion use intuition and demonstration; they prioritize efficiency and clarity of signals. Secularism uses logic and abstract reason; it’s comfortable with ambiguous social roles and signals. In part, this is because it can afford to be.

  • Surprise123

    VERY interesting hypothesis. I’m going to have to mull this one over for a VERY long time, and parse it through my understanding that:

    1) Women are often more religious than men.

    2) Oppressed peoples are more religious than those who are not.

    “Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker just to walk up to the cows and try to woo them directly? That way the cows themselves could choose which bulls to mate with, and this would simplify the whole rutting process.”
    By analogy, are you trying to imply that traditional religion, which is hostile to homosexuality, and separates men and women into distinct roles, limiting women to the domestic sphere, and forcing men into more adventurous, adversarial or even warlike behaviors is a form of “sparring” signaling for polities or communities of limited resources? And, if so, is it reasonable to assume that unlike a herd of elk, in which cows accept the victorious elk for mating after the battle, in traditional human societies ruled by religious priests, it’s the priests who determine the rules of the mating – sparring game, and patriarchs under their “signaling” who determine who wins the mating – sparring bout?
    Or, maybe I’m carrying this a bit too far?

    • connorwood

      >(are traditional gender roles) a form of “sparring” signaling for polities or communities of limited resources?

      That’s a bit of an over-inference. My point is more general: clearly defined social roles, and the rituals that publicly demonstrate those roles, are cognitive energy-saving devices. This is true in the sexual arena but also in all other social spheres.

      > in traditional human societies ruled by religious priests

      I’m not sure which societies you’re talking about, but relatively few cultures have ever been actively ruled by priests. And in most hunter-gatherer cultures there are scarcely any “rulers” at all. I’d be wary of making too many generalizations about culture (says the writer who just wrote an entire blog post generalizing about culture). Having said that, I do think that religious leaders have often set the “rules” of the mating games for their cultures, partly in order to benefit the elites and also partly because excessive sexual competition is an utter death knell for a society. If you want a smoothly functioning community, the very first thing you need to do is ensure that the mating rules are fairly simple and fair, and that sex isn’t cheap or easy to get.

      • Y. A. Warren

        “If you want a smoothly functioning community, the very first thing you need to do is ensure that the mating rules are fairly simple and fair, and that sex isn’t cheap or easy to get.”

        That used to be the job of the women and their families of origin. Apparently birth control has stopped the fear that families will be presented with a bunch of “bastard” babies to support. The churches helped in securing these contracts between families.

      • Surprise123

        Funny, I would thought that easy, cheap sex would LEAD to a smoothly functioning society…kind of like a peaceful community of Bonobo Chimps.
        Don’t conservative religions, which highly value sexually faithful women, and hate homosexuality in males, increase demand for sex, thereby INCREASING sexual competition?

        • connorwood

          Humans aren’t bonobos. Among humans, cheap, easy sex leads to low commitment levels among men, and children raised without fathers. This is a fact I really, really wish liberals and progressives would face up to. Sex is an incredibly, incredibly powerful motivator – for all genders. If it’s not packaged in such a way that its powerful rewards don’t also come with serious responsibilities, the reward equation gets thrown off and social fabric really is damaged as people, especially but not only men, realize that they can get what they crave without having to maintain any relational obligations. This is because human (not bonobo) social fabric is woven primarily of threads of mutual obligation, not opportunism.

          If you want evidence for this, go hang out in a community where sex is cheap and easy to get. One example is many poor urban communities. Another is privileged counterculture communities. Neither is notable for having much social cohesion or stellar life outcomes. A lifetime of experience has also taught me that the latter is characterized by IMMENSE sexual competition between men. In a community where men are always “on the pull,” as they used to say in England, all men perceive other men as potential competitors. Conversely, in a community where most people are coupled up, men and women are given more freedom to see other members of their gender as potential friends or allies.

          This is all not a very politically correct position to hold, because it posits real, biological constraints on sexual behavior – which contradicts the liberal ideal of pure freedom in lifestyle decisions – but it’s true. If liberals and progressives could accept and learn this one thing, they could understand a tremendous amount of why conservatives seem so unhealthily obsessed with sex, and they could also make great headway in getting conservatives to trust them enough to accept liberal opinions on important things like climate change, ecological protection, and cultural tolerance.

  • Zeke

    This observation seems to support the notion that religious belief and ritual have social utility. Even if we disregard the more egregious effects of religious belief (suicide bombings, gay bashing, science denial, to name a few), the fact that certain beliefs might be useful in no way suggests that they are true. We could observe that LDS communities have lower incidence rates of murder, divorce, theft, teen pregnancy and many of the other ills that plague society. Does that in any way support the claim that Joseph Smith received magic glasses from an angel in upstate New York to translate the Book of Mormon?

    • JohnH2

      Marginally it does provide evidence that Joseph Smith received magic glasses from and angel in upstate New York to translate the Book of Mormon. It provides a data point which fits that hypothesis, that isn’t the only hypothesis which the data point fits so ones priors and other data points are certainly relevant in determining whether that hypothesis meets the heuristic of the simplest one that covers all data points.

      Conversely if there were no benefit to being LDS then that would be a strong data point against the hypothesis that Joseph Smith received magic glasses from an angel in upstate New York. At least under the heuristic that a model must be useful to be considered to approximate truth, and under an evaluation of what the LDS scriptures themselves say.

      • Zeke

        Non sequitur. Millions of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Scientologists will testify to the consolations and benefits of their religion. Does that make you any more likely to convert?

        In fact, the more atheistic countries consistently rank as healthier on the UN Human Development Index, in terms of life expectancy, homicide rates, education, infant mortality, and per-capita income. The nations ranked at the bottom in human development are overwhelmingly religious.
        What do we make of this? Certainly not that atheism is true, but only that religious superstition is not a requirement for the well-being of individuals or a society, and that religious faith does nothing to ensure it.

        • JohnH2

          The statistical average of those practicing the religion is what important, that was I assumed what you were referring to. It is expected that any belief system will have perceived benefits to those practicing it, but measurable to someone not practicing it is what should be considered a data point in favor of the religion.

          Those other things mentioned don’t contradict the hypothesis, but do limit the weight that should be given to the data point, and provide additional data as to the nature of reality.

        • Jason Wills

          There are other forms of “health” which cannot be adequately gauged or even quantified by the UN Human Development Index. Spiritual and cultural vitality, for example. Declaring material wealth and social stability to be the great boon of popular atheism seems to me just naive and short-sighted.

          I assume that by “the more atheistic countries” you are referring to stable, well-ordered European societies such as Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, etc. You are not taking into account a brutally repressive atheistic regime like North Korea.

          However, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has noted a kind of “metaphysical boredom” afflicting the native populace in complacently secular Europe these days. It is a social and cultural regression imperceptible to many — one which has gradually robbed the people of their former vitality and aspiration.

          No doubt this bland secular complacency and spiritual mediocrity in Europe is already being challenged by the steady influx of immigrants and refugees from the developing world, particularly Muslim countries, as well as the growing epidemic of social, economic and environmental chaos around the globe.

          • Pofarmer

            North Korea is effectively run as a theocracy.

          • Jason Wills

            North Korea is a neo-Stalinist atheist monarchy. It is the most dangerous country in the world for Christians. Anyone caught with a Bible is arrested and sent to a prison camp.

          • Pofarmer

            You can be sent to a Prison camp for just about anything. Christopher Hitchens called it a Necrocracy. Kim Jung Il’s father was said to be divinely born, as was Kim Jung Il. Not sure about the current tyrant in charge. But they exercise power both as rulers and as demi-gods.

          • Jason Wills

            Oh please! The Kims just beat their chests and rant and rave whatever hysterical blustering nonsense they want about themselves. They also call their system of government “republican democracy”. Do you take that at face value too?

            As G. K. Chesterton once said, “he who does not believe in God will believe in anything.”

            The late Trotskyite-cum-opportunistic-neocon-supporter Christopher Hitchens was merely making up cravenly disingenuous and obfuscatory Orwellian Newspeak words in order to avoid admitting the clear and inescapable fact that North Korea is indeed a classic totalitarian state founded upon a materialist ideology of revolutionary Marxism — just like the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

            As such, the North Korean regime is strictly atheist by definition. It actively suppresses and persecutes all religions and has a particular loathing of Christianity, which it viciously slanders as the ruse of Western capitalist imperialists.

            You can read more about it here:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_North_Korea#History_of_anti-religious_campaign

          • Pofarmer

            “North Koreans worship their dead dictator, Kim Il Sung, and his son the reigning Kim Jong Il, despite the surreal nightmare of famine, isolation, repression, and nuclear peril the dynasty has spawned. In Pyongyang, the author wonders whether mass delusion is the only thing that keeps a people “sane.”
            Christopher Hitchens “Journey to a small Planet.”

            Don’t underestimate dictators using religious means to control their followers.

            http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2001/01/hitchens-200101

          • Jason Wills

            The Kims’ crassly manufactured atheistic personality cult can only be called idolatrous and pseudo-religious at best.

            BTW, the late Christopher Hitchens was a professional sophist, propagandist, dilettante, sybarite and shameless publicity hound. He was not a serious journalist, let alone a true intellectual.

          • Pofarmer

            “The Kims’ crassly manufactured atheistic personality cult can only be called idolatrous and pseudo-religious at best”

            No kidding, From CBS news.

            “Legend has it that a double rainbow and a glowing new star appeared in
            the heavens to herald the birth of Kim Jong Il, in 1942, on North
            Korea’s cherished Baekdu Mountain.
            Soviet records, however, indicate he was born in the Siberian village
            of Vyatskoye, in 1941. The people of North Korea, many of whom are
            reportedly battling famine, are apparently told that Kim’s birthday is
            celebrated throughout the world.”

            http://www.cbsnews.com/media/kim-jong-il-10-weird-facts-propaganda/

            Whatever you think of Christopher Hitchens, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he was frequently right. He traveled to Rwanda, he traveled to N Korea, he went to Iraq, which is much more than you can say for the likes of, say, Jerry Falwel et al.

          • Jason Wills

            As far as I can tell, Hitchens was merely a shameless and unprincipled opportunist who had no apparent convictions beyond his own vulgar self-interest.

            Indeed, he was the Jerry Springer of modern yellow journalism: he made a name for himself by promoting his own inimitable brand of ostentatious soapbox outrage and cynically calculated sensationalism to a jaded public with an appetite for lurid celebrity train wrecks, political scandal and hyped-up moral atrocities.

            His primary modus operandi was to unleash a barrage of hysterically vicious (and often sanctimonious) personal attacks on anyone (or anything) that disagreed with him. He certainly exulted in stoking the hot fires of indignation and seemed to delight in ridiculing people mercilessly.

            As an author and media personality, Hitchens was a crude and careless man who had no compunction about playing fast and loose with the truth. In much of his published writing, he frequently made howling factual blunders and egregious errors of logic. His books and columns were little more than rollicking burlesques of overblown tendentious blather — more knockabout farce and caricature than serious sober investigations into the actual state of the world.

          • Pofarmer

            “more knockabout farce and caricature than serious sober investigations into the actual state of the world.”

            In other words, what people like to read. He got people to engage in and think about topics in a way they never would have before. I used to think Hitchens was overly harsh, before I realized that he was mostly correct.

          • Jason Wills

            Oh well. To each his own, I guess.

            In the bloodstained abattoir or the noisy marketplace, sensationalism often trumps common sense, eh?

          • connorwood

            Pofarmer, this blog isn’t a venue for this kind of debate. Please keep your comments on-topic and don’t call others naive or ignorant. Thanks.

          • Pofarmer

            Connor, thank you for providing this forum, and I am going to leave this thread. In my own defense, though, let me point out that I made a simple point of fact, which I then backed up with multiple sources, which Jason Wills continued to attempt to refute, and then attack my source which was verified by other sources, over nothing but Catholic Arrogance that I find all to typical. Delete this comment if you wish, I am done with this thread. Thank You.

          • Jason Wills

            Oh really? What point of fact was that? And what are these “multiple sources” to which you allude??

            As far as I can see, you have contributed nothing valid to this comments board. You just seem upset that I don’t roll over and give in to your silly, frivolous sniping and misinformation about the Catholic faith.

          • Ken Alexander

            Jason,
            I am much in agreement with you. Atheists claiming that Stalin wasn’t an atheist is like Christians claiming that Torquemada wasn’t a Christian.
            Both Christians and Atheists need to face up to the fact that people who share many of their beliefs can be capable of great evil. Neither “theocracy” not “technocracy” is a guarantor of human happiness.
            Christians do have the advantage of referencing the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount to question the credentials of those obviously doing evil in the name of Christianity.

        • Y. A. Warren

          What I make of it is that many religions thrive on the feelings of helplessness of the masses where the religious leaders can set themselves up as saviors. Even the relationship with “God” is actually the Stockholm Syndrome, writ large.

          • Jason Wills

            If you really think that a personal relationship with God “is actually the Stockholm Syndrome, writ large” then you know nothing of it.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Until Jesus came along, “God” was presented as a megalomaniac. Jesus seems to have attempted to clear this up, bur religions continue to justify all manner of fear-mongering control tactics on this “God.”

          • Jason Wills

            That is the Marcion heresy in a nutshell (embellished with your own gratuitous cynicism, of course).

            To help set you straight on the matter, I would recommend reading Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God”.

            http://www.amazon.com/God-Moral-Monster-Making-Testament/dp/0801072751/

          • connorwood

            > Until Jesus came along, “God” was presented as a megalomaniac.

            Y.A. Warren, I think many generations of Jewish scholars and practitioners would disagree with you here. Have you considered that Jewish Midrash is often the process of working out meaning and even beauty from the difficult stories of the Hebrew Bible? And if those stories were nice and easy, then no one would have to do so much work, in the form of conversation, debate, reading, and meditation, in order to gain insight into their meaning? Or that it might be the very process itself of interpreting the (often difficult) Torah that gives rabbinic Judaism its depth and strength?

            In other words, easy stories are very rarely insightful ones; are they are almost never reflective of reality. Characters that do not challenge also do not instigate growth. To anchor a people and religion, you need stories that reflect the contradictions and suffering people actually experience in life. The bloodshed, passion, paradoxes, and wild mood swings of the Hebrew Bible certainly fit that bill.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am aware of the arguments of Jewish scholars, and impressed that they continue to debate. I don’t, however, see any “face” of “God” that doesn’t seem to be modeled on the male human face, rather than the other way around, as stated in Genesis.

            “To anchor a people and religion, you need stories that reflect the contradictions and suffering people actually experience in life.”

            This is true, but the problem is that the stories have been elevated from humans impressions to words spoken by “God.” This again makes “God” a limited physical being with a limited physical presence.

            Any two people experiencing the same event are actually experiencing two different events through their own worldview lenses. This is probably why there are two versions of Genesis. We don’t even pretend either is an eye witness account, but we continue to act as if these stories are actually what happened.

            The early Jews had it right, as did many native Americans. Holy Spirit has no limit to the many manifestations in which the breath of life is presented. To put any boundaries on the image is blasphemy.

          • connorwood

            >To put any boundaries on the image is blasphemy.

            This is called apophatic theology – the understanding that God is beyond any conceptual distinctions, so to restrict the divine with words or images is a form of idolatry. Lots of great thinkers would agree with you. And so would I, for that matter!

            I think where I disagree with you is when it comes to your following claim:

            > we continue to act as if these stories are actually what happened.

            Fundamentalist Protestants do, yes. But most Biblical interpreters, not to mention Talmudic scholars, have seen many more layers of depth in these stories than I think you give them credit for here. There’s discursive meaning, which is the superficial level, but then there are also metaphorical, affective, and even sensory levels of meaning (unless you are Richard Dawkins or a fundamentalist pastor). If the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita were mere recollections of facts, they’d be useless. But because they include stories and imagery that are supposed to awaken a spiritual sense, or to activate different heuristic structures, they’re read and loved and struggled with by billions.

            And remember: “Israel” probably means “struggles with God.” This means that God is a character that needs struggling with, which again means that he’s probably not an easy character. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Just because we project our own form and concepts onto an idea of God doesn’t mean that idea is automatically useless.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Thank you, Connor, for your reply. What so many who think these things through don’t seem to understand is how many people are lacking at least one of the following:

            Capacity to think
            Training in thinking
            Time to think

            For religion to continue to feed them the animal instinct building fears of the Old Testament is not helping them along in their journeys to become more fully human. They simply want and need to know the rules.

            I happen to believe that teaching by example and bonding has better ability to affect longer term changes in behavior than does motivation by fear.

            I am hopeful that science and spirituality can come up with a language common to both. That is why I continue to search Patheos.

          • Pofarmer

            “There’s discursive meaning, which is the superficial level, but then
            there are also metaphorical, affective, and even sensory levels of
            meaning (unless you are Richard Dawkins or a fundamentalist pastor). If
            the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita were mere recollections of facts, they’d
            be useless. But because they include stories and imagery that are
            supposed to awaken a spiritual sense, or to activate different heuristic
            structures, they’re read and loved and struggled with by billions.”

            That’s all well and good, but none of it need have any resemblance to history for your comment to be true.

    • connorwood

      > the fact that certain beliefs might be useful in no way suggests that they are true.

      You clearly have not read your William James. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_james#Will_to_believe_doctrine

  • Ken Alexander

    Interesting theory, but isn’t there a simpler explanation: atheism co-relates strongly with exposure to higher education, and the wealthy provide their children with “more and better” higher education.
    Interestingly, even seminary training can create religious doubt in some people, by exposing them to modern ideas about how the Bible was compiled and by whom. The recent book “Caught in the Pulpit” by Dan Dennett recounts several personal stories describing this. It also provides many personal accounts by clergy who went from deep religious faith to atheism, and none of the cases of this seem to have resulted from a change in wealth status.
    Your theory would also need to explain why in pre-Enlightenment times the wealthy were extremely devout, funding the cathedrals, private chapels, and religious art and music that we enjoy today.
    I guess what I’m saying is that I see religion (or lack of it) as more of a cultural rather than biological phenomenon, with no strong tie to wealth per se over our long-term (and especially pre-Enlightenment) history

    • R Vogel

      Isn’t the ability to spend unproductive time pursuing higher education one of the by-products of a wealthy society?

      • Ken Alexander

        Hmmm.. If you took out the word “unproductive” I’d say yes to your question. The theory of higher education (and the reason people spend jillions of dollars getting it) is that it supposedly trains people to be eventually more “productive” than they otherwise would have been, over the course of their lifetimes.
        But I’m not certain I’m fully understanding your point, or the relevance to the post topic….?

        • R Vogel

          Unproductive in the immediate sense. If you are pursuing education goals you are not hunting for your next meal, tilling a field, or washing clothes. It is an activity of leisure which is mainly the result of a certain level of wealth. Certainly education has the potential to lead to future increases in productivity, but only at the sacrifice of immediate productivity. And even then it is only a potential. I am not disparaging education, just pointing out that to a subsistence society it requires a significant sacrifice, far more than a wealthy society.

    • connorwood

      > I see religion (or lack of it) as more of a cultural rather than biological phenomenon

      The institute I work for is called the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (http://ibcsr.org), so I don’t think these two views are in competition. Religion is quite clearly (to me) BOTH biological and cultural – just as we humans are.

      I agree with R Vogel that higher education is a correlate of wealth. Don’t think about wealth as money; think of it as access to physical energy, mostly derived from sunlight. We in the West have a tremendous amount of sunlight energy available to us in the form of fossil fuels. Same with Europe. Higher education is something people can afford to pursue when they have enough energy at their fingertips to take care of most basic physical needs without spending all day in the fields or in a factory.

      Ultimately, I’m less interested in the cognitive contents of people’s beliefs than I am in the systemic overview of culture. You can make a very good prediction of where the atheists are by highlighting where, on a map of the earth, people have the most potential BTUs available to them. There are tons of exceptions to this, but as a general rule it’s a useful framework.

      As for pre-Enlightenment nobles, I’m not sure that funding cathedrals necessarily corresponds with personal piety; the literary evidence suggests that the wealthy even during the Middle Ages were able to pursue much more complex social relationships than the poor. It could also be that the wealth-to-atheism pathway needs a cosmopolitan social context to be activated. There weren’t really any non-Christians around to compare yourself with in most of the Middle Ages, especially in Northern Europe. So the Christian set of beliefs and attitudes wasn’t really under any particular cultural threat the way it is in today’s world. Being wealthy might have just given people more leeway to play with and improvise on established rituals rather than rejecting the Christian rituals outright.

      And also don’t forget that we’re much wealthier, in terms of access to energy, than any noble was then. I don’t think it’s unlikely that we have much more room for ambiguity than even the wealthiest folks did in 1300.

      • Ken Alexander

        Well, I agree with everybody (hard to imagine anyone disagreeing) that wealth correlates to access to higher education. That was one of the points in the first sentence of my original reply to your post.
        If we actually disagree (and I’m not sure that we really do) it would be around my perception that you are seeking a “simple” explanation for atheism in a complex world that resists simple explanations. Perhaps we also disagree on the direct etiology (that word again!) of atheism. My claim is that the experience of “higher education” is a better predictor for the adoption of atheism than wealth alone (while not denying that wealth is a predictor of the ability to access higher education).

        • connorwood

          > you are seeking a “simple” explanation for atheism in a complex world that resists simple explanations.

          I think of myself more as being in the business of mulling models and offering useful interpretive frames. No one frame is going to capture everything about the subject in question, but it might still be useful and illuminating. The fact that I only have space to talk about one model per article might be the reason you’re perceiving me to be looking for a single, simple explanation.

          Education might be a better predictor of atheism than wealth alone. I haven’t seen data on this. But even if so, many of the dynamics I outline here would still be in operation – educated, comfortable people have the time and energy to spend hashing out their social worlds explicitly, verbally, and without much recourse to shared embodied practices. And of course, higher education encourages precisely those ways of doing things!

          • Jason Wills

            Are you merely propagating the dreary canard that only ignorant people are religious and educated people are atheist?

            You would do well to remember the cautionary words of St. Paul of Tarsus on the vanity and idolatry of easy false wisdom in his Epistle to the Romans (1: 20-23):

            “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

            “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

            “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools

            “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man…”

          • Ken Alexander

            Hi Jason,
            The “canard” you mention is not something I would want to propagate, since I tend to think myself as being both “scientific” and “religious”.
            It may come down to how we want to define “education”. To me, “education” would comprise understanding of the words of Saint Paul that you quote, and the history of how those words have been variously interpreted through the history of Christian theology (from Augustine to Aquinas to Barth and on to the current Piper-Wright debates). It would also include knowledge of evolutionary theory, genomics, cosmology, and the Standard Model of physics.
            I disagree with those who would want to leave either religion or science (or philosophy or art or literature) out of what we call “education”. Would you agree?

          • Jason Wills

            Outside of theological seminaries, hardly anyone receives such an education these days. It’s a great model though.

            For example, Camille Paglia (who is herself an atheistic naturalist, albeit not the militantly anti-theistic kind) has called for an arts and humanities curriculum based on comparative religion. But given the woeful state of “higher education” these days, that seems unlikely.

            I find it incredibly tiresome hearing atheists endlessly perpetuate the bogus caricature of a zero-sum contest between fixed religious doctrine and free scientific inquiry (the Galileo affair is predictably invoked and grossly misinterpreted over and over again ad nauseum).

            Even more noxious and absurd is the suggestion that religious believers are all stubborn, backward, weak-minded, impressionable, fearful, ignorant, delusional and superstitious, whereas atheists are infallibly rational, logical and enlightened creatures.

            Indeed, there seems to be a trend these days among complacently self-regarding atheistic naturalists to demystify and “explain away” all religious experience by reducing it to a banal symptom of materialistic evolutionary psychology and neuroscience (e.g., Richard Dawkins and his “memes”). The more boorish and belligerent ones simply dismiss all religion as the unfortunate result of received social prejudice and ingrained dysfunction and psychopathology.

            This is especially annoying when one considers that most of these atheists are themselves theological illiterates who know little or nothing about the history of religion, metaphysics, epistemology, classical aesthetics, or even of the invaluable debt that modern science owes to the classical theistic worldview.

          • connorwood

            Jason, since you started this thread by questioning whether I was saying that religious people are ignorant, and because theological literacy is something you value, you might want to read about the PhD program I’m enrolled in: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/deg_phd_track4.htm

          • Jason Wills

            Looks like a great program. Do you know Peter Kreeft?

            BTW, I didn’t start this thread. I was merely responding to a comment. You seem to have more faith in higher education than I do these days. Or maybe I should just apply to Boston University….

          • connorwood

            I don’t know Peter, no. And I know you didn’t start this thread – I should have said subthread. I just wanted to show that there’s at least one program out there that pays the sensitive attention to theology and the history of thought that you note (correctly) is missing from so much education these days, even as it tackles the hard sciences.

          • Jason Wills

            Well, that’s encouraging news at least.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Have we learned nothing since the story of Adam and Eve? Pretense at knowing all things and the competition to outdo each other is why we continue to kill each other and the earth.

            It has long been a zero sum competitive battle between religion and science, based on arrogance on both sides. Both want to pretend they have absolute answers, when, in reality, mystery is what makes life worth living.

            If we stop defining “wonder”, “awe”, and “amazement” as “fear of God”, childish fantasy, or female emotionalism we may actually be able to work in cooperative, collaborative (collegial?) environments.

          • connorwood

            Ken, apropos of your educational vision, here’s another link you might be interested in checking out: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/deg_phd_track4.htm

      • Y. A. Warren

        Wealth has always had an effect on politics, and “Christianity,” early on, became the religio-political system of “Christendom.”

  • ortcutt

    This article conflates atheism with lack of an active religious community. Most people who don’t have a religious community aren’t atheists, just as there are some atheists (e.g. atheist UUs) who have an active religious community. Atheism is fairly rare in the US (and self-identification as an atheist still rarer), but not having an active religious community is fairly common. In person-to-person telephone polls, 41% of American report that they regularly attend church. but time-use studies indicate that is twice the actual number, and a 2006 Harris online poll (where there is less social pressure with an interviewer), only 26% reported regular church attendance. For many of the rest, their religion is an imagined community rather than a real one. My parents probably still self-identify as Catholic, but they don’t engage in any religious rituals vis-a-vis any community. If this condition requires ambiguous social roles, then a majority of Americans are managing to get by fine in that condition.

    • connorwood

      >If this condition requires ambiguous social roles, then a majority of Americans are managing to get by fine in that condition.

      Yes, because the United States is incredibly wealthy. We can afford all this ambiguity. Church or mosque or temple attendance in the developing world is much higher precisely because they DON’T have the immense wealth and extra energy we have to sort out ambiguous social worlds.

      • ortcutt

        That’s just useful to point out because it seemed from the Alternet article that “wealthy” was being defined as US upper middle class and above.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Even today, in rural southern communities, a person is shunned if not associated with a church. They want to know who you are if they are going to help you. This is not all bad, especially if you see “charity” as an investment in others.

    • James

      Not having a professed religious belief is pretty much the definition of being an “atheist.” Sure, self-identification as an atheist is much less common, but that has a lot to do with social stigma, and we still have a lot of that here, especially in the South. As an atheist, I find that sharing my lack of belief is a great way of ending conversations with friends, family and co-workers and to really put the breaks on my social life. In most circumstances, it’s a topic best avoided in polite company; most of my atheist friends report similar circumstances. Pretty much the only time I tell actual people that I’m an atheist is when I want the JWs and the Mormons to leave me alone. Atheists also frequently self-identify as “agnostics” for much the same reason, making it easier to get along with self-described religious believers on social occasions. But if one doesn’t believe in any particular deity, then one is an atheist, not an agnostic; again by definition.

      You do raise a valid point, however, which is why most polls of religious belief include the term “spiritual, not religious” for those who lean towards belief but whom do not associate with any particular church or religion. There is also the broad category of the ” nones” or the “none of the aboves” which covers everyone who isn’t buying what organized religion is selling, regardless of the specifics.

      Most people, I think, fall somewhere into a spectrum. On one extreme end, there are people who believe what they believe no matter what argument or evidence there may seem to be to the contrary, and on the other extreme, there are close-minded atheists who don’t believe there is anything at all to religion, who don’t care about the subject and who aren’t at all curious about belief. Most people lies somewhere in the middle; believers who have their doubts, but whom default to belief; agnostic atheists who are reasonably sure there is nothing to religion but whom are intellectually curious about it and whom enjoy participating in the conversation, and many other nuances in between; there are those who believe somewhat vaguely in the divine, but whom think all religions are basically wrong on the details and are too dogmatic.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Atheists seem to be generally opposed to anything not empirical. It is rather humorous, to me that this is also my problem with all the religious dogma about the defining presence of a ‘god.”

        If believing in “awe”, “wonder”, and “mystery” are believing in a “god”, I am a deist. I simply don’t limit my relationship to any of the universal manifestations that create these sensations in me to any religion’s limiting definitions of a deity or deities.

  • R Vogel

    Another interesting article. It dovetails nicely with a recent paper I read by Gervais and Norenzayan, “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief” (Science, vol 336, APril 2012) where they conducted multiple experiments where the test subjects were primed to think analytically in a variety of ways and then tested on their religious beliefs. I think you can make a good case that analytic thinking is highly favored by a wealthy society.

    • connorwood

      Yep, in part because analytical thinking is a more cost-intensive, energy-draining cognitive style. (This is why people revert to intuitive thinking when they’re being overloaded with little tasks, or when they’re drunk.)

      But another reason is because you NEED intuitive thinking to smoothly navigate high-context, embodied social worlds. If you live in a tribe or an insular culture, a lot of communication is carried out nonverbally, through body language, context, ritual, and so forth. If you examine these things analytically you’ll mess everything up, because analytical cognition can’t handle the sheer amount of data that’s transmitted through subtle glances, vocal inflections, body postures, and so forth.

      In this sense, analytical thinking is favored by wealthy society because wealthy society tends to be low-context and cosmopolitan, mingling many cultures in one marketplace or urban environment. Subtle social cues don’t work very well in such a world, so explicit, verbal communication becomes the dominant mode.

      • Y. A. Warren

        You have hit on the basic issue for people on the autism spectrum, which does include many brilliant scientists. They need guides to discern social cues for them.

        The Roman Catholic Church (from which all “Christianity” grew) has always contended that man is the head and woman is the heart of the home. While “learning disabilities” are more often diagnosed in male children, my impression is that “mental illness” was more often diagnosed in females until alcoholism became a diagnosis.

        The greatest thing about the years since the 1960s seems to be that people are becoming more free to see themselves and others, with their individual talents and weaknesses, and to build intentional communities that are capable of cooperation, rather than hierarchical systems that require competition.

        • Jason Wills

          “The greatest thing about the years since the 1960s seems to be that people are becoming more free to see themselves and others, with their individual talents and weaknesses, and to build intentional communities that are capable of cooperation, rather than hierarchical systems that require competition.”

          I’m sorry, but that is just hopelessly naive, sentimental piffle.

          • Y. A. Warren

            You seem to have a very healthy ego, and an attitude of great personal authority. Is this based on anything other than “hopelessly naive, sentimental piffle” about yourself?

          • Jason Wills

            My judgment is simply based on keen observation, considered reflection, acquired wisdom and common sense.

            Way back in the 4th century, St. Augustine of Hippo correctly perceived the folly of such a sentimental embrace of the myth of human progress — especially the do-what-you-will-for-we-are-all-innocent kind.

          • connorwood

            Jason, I happen to agree that Y.A. Warren’s characterization of culture since the 1960s is overly optimistic and a bit stereotyped. But please refrain from calling other people’s ideas “piffle” or any other kind of derogatory name in the comments at Science On Religion. If your ideas are as good as you believe them to be, you don’t need to insult anyone to engage them in debate. Kindly stick to friendly tactics from here on out. If you disagree with someone strongly then convince them with facts, not names.

          • Jason Wills

            I didn’t call him any names. However, Y.A. Warren has this unfortunate propensity for crude, simple-minded and sometimes offensive stereotypes. I don’t know what his issues are exactly. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em and try to keep things on an even keel.

          • Pofarmer

            Yes, what we need to do is submit ourselves to the authority of the one true Church. That will clear it all right up.

          • Jason Wills

            Not exactly. Cooperate with God’s grace and allow the Holy Spirit to work through you.

          • Pofarmer

            Same thing to most Catholics I know.

          • Jason Wills

            There is the Church visible and the Church invisible.

          • Pofarmer

            All is Church.

            Look, I’m done with this line.

  • Jim

    Your article got me thinking. Thanks. I wonder if we, western societies, have lost the ability to communicate to the whole person because we have abandoned ritual in favor of abstract, negotiated relationships. It’s like we have focused so much on rational thought that we have forgotten that there is more to us than just our minds. Perhaps that is why so many people feel so isolated as a people.

    • connorwood

      > It’s like we have focused so much on rational thought that we have forgotten that there is more to us than just our minds.

      This is the problem that’s motivating my entire academic and writing career!

      Of course, the problem is that pretending to be just a mind is a LOT easier than also being a body – people who think they’re just minds don’t have to deal with emotions, hunger, sex, fear, biases, discomfort, yearning, and so forth. (Also, a mind-only orientation has always been a higher-status position, since it shows that you have slaves or servants taking care of the physical necessities of life. This is also why it has traditionally been a male-centric orientation; males in many cultures have purchased their distance from the body at the expense of coercing women into taking care of most of the boring and messy details of embodied life.) So telling educated people that they are more than minds is a tricky proposition, with a low success rate. But at least it’s fun!

      • amanimal

        Your last sentence brought to mind:

        “It turns out a lot of skeptics don’t like hearing that they aren’t as rational as they think they are. They also don’t like hearing that there are some benefits to irrationality.”

        ‘Q&A: Why It’s Sometimes Rational to Be Irrational’

        http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/06/magical-thinking-hutson/all/

        “But at least it’s fun!” – LOL :)

        • connorwood

          Thanks for sharing!

      • amanimal

        Oops – should have read “Your [2nd to last sentence] brought to mind …” actually.

    • amanimal

      Hi Jim, I see it’s been 6 days now I’ve been pondering your comment – past high time I said thanks! My 1st thought on reading your comment was that I’d add just a single word to your observation:

      “… we have forgotten that there is more to us than just our [conscious] minds.”

      … though maybe that’s what you had in mind? It’s thought amongst neuroscientists that 95% or more of our mental activity is unconscious(Lakoff/Johnson 1999), so it would seem to me that’s where the action is, the essence of life as it were. Our egos, however, think otherwise, privileging consciousness often to the point of deification. Given the primacy of the unconscious it seems to me that more than just a bit of humility might be in order.

      Next I searched “individualist vs collectivist cultures”, something I intend to explore more fully someday, where I learned that:

      “People in individualist cultures are susceptible to loneliness …”

      ‘Collectivist and individualist cultures’
      http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Collectivist_and_individualist_cultures

      As it happens I’m currently reading Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ where he uses the metaphor of “the rider and the elephant” referring to the conscious and the unconscious, or in Kahneman’s(‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’) vernacular, System 2 and System 1. Haidt talks about “The Rationalist Delusion”, that System 2(consciousness) is in charge and running the show – it’s not, at least that’s my take on the suituation from the reading I’ve done.

      Thanks again for sending me off – if you’re curious check out Leonid Perlovsky’s “Knowledge Instinct” – probably the most interesting concept I came across last year, and 2nded in Michael Gazzaniga’s ‘Who’s In Charge?’ – we’re:

      “… driven to infer causality.” – p77

      “… driven to explain events that make sense out of scattered facts.” – p77
      :) Thanks again – excellent comment!

      • Jim

        Thanks for the compliment. I come at this problem, not from a scientific side, but as a pastor in a congregation. I consciously chose the word “mind” as opposed to “brain” for the very reasons you state above. While I can’t base my opinion on anything other than my gut, I think that we are even more than our brains: a whole mess of hormones, glands, and other systems. We’re much more than a brain that happens to have a biological support structure.

        • amanimal

          Hmm, a hands on, from the frontlines POV, that has to be a difficult profession at times – you have my respect.

          “While I can’t base my opinion on anything other than my gut …”

          It seems to me that’s where all of our opinions start :)

  • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

    I do the same thing over and over again day in and a day out by way of earning money and I still have nothing. I see no reason to waste my time on a Sunday morning with repetitive rituals that do nothing and ruin one’s health with more stress when I can use Sunday for getting some real well earned rest. I use to go to church, worry and fret with prayer, but I still had nothing. I didn’t get any rest on top of all the stress. Now that I’m a humanist I have less anxiety and get more rest, which is more healthy. It didn’t make me rich or well off, but I’m glad I lost faith because I’m healthier for it due to less stress, less anxiety, and more sleep with less repetition. I get that Monday-Friday on the job, so it’s better to have one less day of it and makes life easier, with less energy expended… for me at least.

    And who exactly are church people communicating to when they stand up, sit down, and in some churches kneel, as well as walk up to the altar. It’s always been my understanding, those behaviours are to worship their deity, thus communicating with the deity. Nothing social about it, until the sharing of the peace in the middle and then the end of the service as you walk out the door to go home. Now that I think about it, said study is a bit messed up, unless it’s talking about Pancake night on Fat Tuesday as the social event at churches.

    • Ken Alexander

      Hi Mriana,
      I enjoyed you post, sounds like you went to a pretty liturgical church like mine (Episcopal). I do enjoy the liturgy and believe it has “meaning”, but some people (such as yourself) just don’t.
      My advice to people is: if you don’t enjoy church, don’t go. And if you do enjoy it, don’t worry about having the right beliefs. If you like coming, please just keep coming.
      Bottom line: nobody should believe that church attendance gives them “points with God”. The God I believe in doesn’t use a “point” system.

      • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

        Yes, I was an Episcopalian for many years after I left home and I won’t deny that it has meaning, but it seems to me it is only between the person and their concept of a deity, not the person, others, and a deity. Prior to that, I was raised in the Church of God (Anderson Indiana), which is very Evangelical Fundamentalist and most stand up, sit down, listen to the preacher, and forever long altar calls. However, much of the rituals, as well as other external stimuli within the services, trigger neuro-chemistry in the brain, which cause feelings of awe and wonder, as well as other numinous feelings. Such numinous feelings are not necessarily shared, esp in the moment when the external stimuli triggers the internal chemistry of the individual.

        I did like the ritual of the Episcopal Church for as long as I had a god concept. After that, I started to feel as though if I didn’t go, people would pass judgment on me- not a god, but other people. After I decided that it wasn’t any of their business, among other things, (including and esp) such as unofficially excommunicating my younger son at the age of 12 for behaviours related to his high functioning autism. Seems people will judge others anyway, including the priest, who judges a child with a disability.

        No god gives points for attending church services, this agree with and cannot dispute, regardless of what concept one may hold. People do though and no matter what church you attend, it seems to people are going to pass judgement on divorced single women with children, esp if they have a child with psychological issues. This doesn’t help. IF a community is suppose to be a source of help to others, I think they should also assist parents who are doing their best without the absentee parent, who puts no effort in assisting with the children they help to bring into this world, esp those children with a disability (mild or severe), not throw a 12 y.o., with a disability, out until s/he is able to overcome said disability and expect the rest of the family to attend, whether they believe or not in the god concept established by the hierarchy of the Church.

        I’m willing to bet, despite the move to ordain women, the Episcopal Church still has issues with women, as well as issues with individuals with psychological disabilities too, that they need to overcome. The Episcopal Church, at least in the U.S., has come a long ways over the last couple of centuries in regards to racism, misogyny, and sexuality, but there is still much more that needs to be overcome by way of prejudices and not just the ones I named.

        Now here is something else that I had great issues with- When I told retired Bishop John Shelby Spong that I am a humanist he wrote back and said to me, “Mriana, Humanism is not anti-Christian or anti-God. It is through the human that we experience the Holy the Other. The divine is the ultimate depth of the human.” Words I appreciated very much, whether or not we shared the same concepts, but when I told my good friend, as well as priest, who was like sister to me, she responded with, “Atheism is not the answer!” This showed a total lack of knowledge concerning humanism and it’s vast continuum. Then again, Anthony Freeman, Don Cupitt, Tom Harper, as well as Bishop Spong wasn’t regarded much better either after expressing their humanistic views and oddly enough, while I don’t agree with everything they say, I do agree with quite a bit. Even so, because my views didn’t jive with the majority, I became an apostate, much like many others have, I’m sure.

        There are many problems within the Church, of which the domination of one’s sect doesn’t really matter, but esp in the Episcopal Church, which is allegedly progressive and liberal, that need resolving. I think the UU does a very good job of supporting humanistic views and values. The UU does a far better job than the Episcopal Church, that is for sure, and accepts humanists, welcoming them to their services. It just so happens, that many Unitarian Universalist clergy signed all three of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifestos too. The UU (as well as the Ethical Society) even gives/shares their community with humanists. No other clergy or church has done that, which make the UU more impressive to me, as a church community, than the Episcopal/Anglican Church.

        • Y. A. Warren

          I certainly empathize with your decision to stop attending ritualized religious services. I, too, stopped torturing myself and my son on Sunday mornings with having to leave him with church ladies nursery who thought he was bad (all because he missed his family) or continuing to make him feel bad myself because he couldn’t sit still. Sunday was my only day with my family, and I chose to make them my “church.”

          • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

            Yes, and nothing tells a child so strongly (and BTW, the priest did this in front of both my sons, concerning my younger son) that they are “bad” as to say “you cannot come back until you can behave in an acceptable manner”. My sons are now 22 and 24, both of them say its really messed (a nicer word than what they actually use) up to throw a child out of a church for their behaviour. I don’t think such behaviour helped my younger son, but it did leave a very strong impression on him about the Church hierarchy and how demanding they can be concerning conformity.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I hope your sons are finding loving relationships in other sources of community. I am encouraged by the efforts to banish stereotypes and bullying in today’s more progressive public schools.

            My son is now a father of two, successful business owner, married to a special education department director in a public school, who has also used his job flexibility to be a “community” parent in his neighborhood. He has created his own “church” in his backyard.

            The “Christian” church has based itself on the model of monarchy, where conformity is a form of worship. I simply don’t believe that the “Christian” church is following the Biblical Jesus (real or mythical matters not, in this case) as their christ.

          • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

            The older one is and doing fairly well as a young adult, but my younger son has struggled greatly and I don’t think the Church, with it’s dogmas and demands for conformity, helped him, esp with the attitudes they had towards him and his PDD-NOS, prior to them throwing him out of the “community”. As a teen into very early adulthood, my younger son ended up in a bad crowd and is now learning some hard lessons, but hopefully he’ll eventually become a successful young man involved in supportive, caring, and loving community of true friends, just as his older brother has. My younger son is just now exploring and questioning, trying to figure out what he does believe and does not, while my older son claims Taoism and Buddhism. I think, in the end, my younger son will eventually find his own path (as well as community) that helps and encourages him strive to be the best person he can be, just as his brother has.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am so angry that so many still judge “God’s” favor by how easy our lives are. There is such a prejudice toward blaming the struggling person for the struggles as sort of a magic spell against “catching” what the other has. Religions seem to be big self-congratulation fests. Thank “God” we are not “them.”

            As I brought my son up, I often had to physically fight for him (once against a two sons of a policeman who had my son pinned to the ground by their dad’s K-9 dog). The men and women who called themselves “Christian” simply blamed him for being so “bad” (read active).

          • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

            I agree. I think if they were to realize they are judging others based on their own concept of a deity, they would discover that it is they themselves who are doing the judging and not any deity.

          • Y. A. Warren

            “Modern” males are so egocentric that they have put their own faces and personalities onto a concept of deity that they wish to force on all, through fear. I refuse to be bound by fear.

            As many mothers know, the closest one gets to being a god is when a nursing baby looks into the mother’s eyes and smiles with mother’s milk running all over the baby and the mother. The mother, at that moment, is an object of worship.

            Our children wish to please and “protect” us because we took the time to bond to them. Society, especially patriarchal society, seeks to diminish this bond. The only justification I can find is misunderstanding of the bond as competition for supremacy.

            The most wonderful thing in the world is for a mother and child to be sheltered from the outside world while they bond, by those who wish them well. “Advanced” humans seem to have lost this community ability.

            Where I find “church” is in those for whom I am “there” and those who are “there” for me and those for whom I care. These are not always the same people, but it works as long as everyone believes in paying it forward within our committed community.

        • Ken Alexander

          There is the UU, and also the Sunday Assembly (http://sundayassembly.com/) if you want to be both communal on Sunday mornings and humanist. And if you don’t, who’s to say you’re wrong? Spending “home time” with your kids/family might be a better use of your two hours.
          Churches have an obligation to provide “value” to those choose to come and maybe toss some dollars in the collection plate. Someone telling your kids they are “bad” has zero value–stay far from that church, I’d say.

          • http://www.houseofbetazed.com Mriana

            I agree, home time with family is good, but once they are grown, home time truly becomes a day of rest and time for yourself in that you get to stay home and get some well deserved rest or take time for yourself. At the same time, some might not want to stay home after the kids grow up and leave home. They might want to spend Sunday socializing, in which case, the UU wouldn’t be a bad choice, IMO. Another choice might be to find a Meet Up group that shares your interests, but even then you run into the “request for money”, not in tithe, but in paying for an activity (which isn’t bad if you can afford it) or funds, in the form of donations, to help keep the group going. Either way, one has to be really interested and involved or it’s not worth the time and money. I personally stay home, even though my sons are grown and on their own, because as I pointed out to my older son, it costs money to make new friends, whether if it’s a meal out (even potlucks) or meeting up at something like a nature center (gas or bus fare, at least), even if the group doesn’t request a donation. In this economy, people still have to decide what is important and what they can afford, even with trying to find community/social group.

    • Y. A. Warren

      The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of promoting themselves as the arbiters of any relationship one has with the punishing “God.” This was promoted over the social justice aspects for centuries. Social justice work was simply another way to “convert” people to Roman Catholicism.

      • Jason Wills

        I don’t think you know anything at all about Roman Catholicism.

        For one thing, God does not seek to punish anyone. According to the natural theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, God is love and nothing else.

        The authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See comes from Jesus himself, who made his disciple Simon Peter the first bishop:

        “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

        “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

        (Matthew 16: 18-19)

        Likewise, the Catholic emphasis on social justice, the preferential option for the poor, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy originate from Jesus’s own teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) as well as his imperative for succoring the poor and the afflicted in Matthew 25:

        “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

        “And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

        “And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

        “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

        “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

        “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

        “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

        “When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

        “Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

        “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

        “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

        “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

        “I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

        “Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

        “Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

        “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”

        (Matthew 25: 31-46)

        • Y. A. Warren

          I am a cradle pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, with twelve years of Roman Catholic education. I am very aware of the way the RCC justifies itself, and I’m also aware of the many political power plays the RCC has used to protect itself from human accountability, including their belief that they know who makes it to heaven and who makes it to hell.

          • Jason Wills

            A lot has happened since the Second Vatican Council. It seems to me that you were insufficiently catechized.

            The Holy See has never made any official statement about who is in hell — indeed, there is no “communio infernus” recognized by the Church. So you are plainly wrong about that.

            After St. Augustine of Hippo, the Magisterium holds that salvation is a mystery made possible by God’s grace alone. Man is justified through faith in Christ’s divinity, sacrifice, resurrection and the promise of everlasting life. He is also justified through sincere acts of cooperation with the unmerited gift of divine grace (i.e., the keeping of the commandments and the sacraments, the pursuit of social justice and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy).

            As I said before, the authority of the Church and its apostolic line of succession originates from Christ himself. From time to time, stupid and wicked men may try to usurp that authority for their own perverse and selfish ends, but the Holy Spirit will always safeguard the Church and guide it back to its true mission.

            The rest of your comment just strikes me as snide, cynical anti-clericalism wallowing in tired old stereotypes.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I was very sufficiently “catechized” with twelve years of religious education on a daily basis, often accompanied by daily “Mass” and “Holy Communion.”

            Pre-Vatican II, the “magisterium” taught that only those baptized by one of the RC priests could go to heaven. What was the other choice? Eternity on earth, perhaps?

            I simply got tired of waiting for the “magisterium” to stop hiding behind their palace walls with their priestly and princely politics and perversions of the ways of Jesus. I reclaimed avenues to The Holy Spirit outside of the Roman church.

            I have attempted to have all my sacraments annulled, but they only annul marriages, with or without consent of the whole family involved. I would love to be excommunicated, but I’m not high profile enough to merit their attention.

          • connorwood

            Jason, I’ve had to delete your comment. Please don’t call anyone “jejune,” “self-indulgent,” “crude,” or “unsophisticated” at Science On Religion. I find a great deal of worth in your observations, so If you’d like to repost your comment in a less personally directed manner, I’d welcome it. But insults are a no-no here.

          • Jason Wills

            Then please delete Y. A. Warren’s comment as well: it is grotesquely obnoxious and offensive.

            And I stand by my response. The Marcion and Pelagian heresies are indeed jejune and unsophisticated, and they were rightly regarded as such by the early Church Fathers.

            Warren’s unreflective acceptance of such feeble nonsense indicates a very poor understanding of Catholic theology and teaching — like I said, “insufficiently catechized”.

          • connorwood

            You can respond to such comments by addressing their substance, while still being respectful to your interlocutor. Y.A. Warren’s comments aren’t attacking you personally, and so they stay – even though I happen to also find them a bit extreme and reliant on stereotypes.

          • Jason Wills

            Actually, he has attacked me personally a few times. And I have indeed addressed the substance of his comments — e.g., his boasts about his knowledge of Catholic theology vs. his ludicrous uninformed caricatures of the same.

            On that basis, it seems quite apparent that he means to antagonize me — or at the very least, insult my intelligence. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to say so.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Connor, I am aware that this may not be the place to argue the theology of the RCC, but scientists have suffered as much as many other groups at the hands of the arrogance of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (not to be confused with what Jesus referred to as the branches on the vine of his life).

            My problem is not with the individual believers in the RCC, but in the hypocrisy that the hierarchy is following Jesus as their christ. I am sorry that this offends some of the true believers in the power of the pope.

            Here is a letter explaining my problems with the RCC, which has been returned twice as undeliverable:

            I, and my eight brothers and sisters were born as cradle Roman Catholics to very strict cradle Catholics, who remained devoutly committed until their deaths, to The
            Roman Catholic Church. We children were abused by both parents in their efforts to make us “perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” Many of their
            methods of purification were honored as sacred by the church. See the “Christian” pogroms and inquisition tactics for details.

            Several of us were sexually molested by several priests.
            The priests were protected by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. When we children and our parents reported the offenses, we were chastised for not being forgiving. No legal action was allowed by the church. The priests were
            protected, and at least one was reassigned to another parish. The actions of these priests and their protectors were nothing short of incest, as we and our
            parents trusted the priests and their superiors to be our spiritual, and in many ways physical, fathers.

            The priests were not rendered defrocked and given over to the civil authorities in order to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” thus bringing to justice child molesters
            posing as the physical presence of Jesus on earth. They also had no “millstones tied around their necks” so that they could throw themselves into the sea. This left all
            but one of the nine children spiritual orphans.

            We cannot feel comfortable in any other church home, nor can we return to a home that has so little compassion for the facts of marriage, human sexuality, and child
            rearing as does the Roman Catholic Church. The church seems to follow “converted” Roman centurion Paul instead of the example of Jesus.

            Paul was not Jesus, and he seems to have colored all his early church with his celibate take on sanctity, after enjoying many years of his own debauchery. I feel that The Roman Catholic Church has not followed Jesus as the “Christ.” It has made up a religion that bonded with a
            political system “converting” people through fear in order to assure control of heaven and earth.

            There are Christian religions that denounce killing of other humans, but the Church of Rome has led an army of “soldiers of Christ.” Jesus had no soldiers, so who is
            the “Christ” of the Roman Catholic Church? Shouldn’t it be a matter of faith and morals for all the followers of Jesus that those faithful to Jesus be conscientious objectors in times of war? I pray that there will come a day that all religions calling themselves “Christian” will stop pretending that they are following Jesus and their “Christ.”

            Although I am extremely interested in how to mesh science and religion, I will respectfully stop commenting on your site, if you request that I do so.

          • Jason Wills

            I’m sorry for your anguish. However, I don’t think that this is really an appropriate forum for airing personal grievances and sharing anecdotes.

          • Pofarmer

            No, better to deal in airy generalizations about the Glory that is the Roman Catholic Church than to deal with the reality of it’s policies put into practice.

          • Jason Wills

            Please stop trolling. Find something better to do.

          • connorwood

            Y.A. Warren,

            I’m very sorry to hear about the trauma and pain you and your family had to go through, and I certainly understand your ambivalent feelings about the Catholic Church. You have my sympathy.

            I hope these comment sections are an open venue for discussing religion and science, so no, I do NOT request at all that you stop commenting! Please continue to visit and take part in conversations as you’re inspired. My only request for everyone is to follow the Comments Guidelines, which are linked to at the very top of this page in the menu bar. As long as no one is being rude, belittling others, swearing, or being a troll, I welcome all comments. Thanks, and again I’m sorry to hear of the difficulties you’ve had to live through.

          • Pofarmer

            “As I said before, the authority of the Church and its apostolic line of
            succession originates from Christ himself. From time to time, stupid and
            wicked men may try to usurp that authority for their own perverse and
            selfish ends, but the Holy Spirit will always safeguard the Church and
            guide it back to its true mission.”

            Does that really hold up? I mean, the papacy has been bought and sold, wars have been fought over it, people have been killed for disagreeing with it. Popes have excommunicated other Popes. How can you claim an unbroken line of succession with a history like that?

          • Jason Wills

            Indeed it does hold up. In fact, all the corruption and wickedness that you allude to only serves to underscore my point that the Church abides and endures in spite of everything after 2000 years.

            And yes, Virginia, there is most definitely an unbroken line of apostolic succession: 266 popes from St. Peter to Francis, to be exact.

          • Pofarmer

            Who cares? There is an unbroken line of Presidents back to George Washington. Does that mean the U.S. govt today is the same as the U.S. govt in 1780? And that’s WITHOUT all the intrigue. I think what it underscores is that the Church is about power. It was once the most powerful political organization on the face of the Earth, may still be. It chose kings, it determined who’s sins would be foregiven. It held absolute power over it’s adherents. That isn’t easily dislodged.

          • Jason Wills

            Who cares? 1.2 billion Catholics around the world care. For the faithful, only the See of Rome is guided by the Holy Spirit.

            Oh, and do you really think that the President of the United States is elected to office without any intrigue?

            To call the Church “a political organization” which “held absolute power over it’s [sic] adherents” is just crass. You are merely setting up and attacking a straw man caricature.

            For the record, the Church has survived Pilate, Nero, Titus, Vespasian, Domitian, Diocletian, Julian the Apostate, Attila the Hun, the Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Vikings, the Arabs, the Ottomans, several great schisms and antipopes as well as the Investiture Controversy and the Avignon Papacy, Benedetto Gaetani, the Medicis, the Borgias, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, the Thirty Years War, the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the decline of the House of Habsburg, the Italian Risorgimento and the loss of the Papal States, World War I, Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pinochet, Peron, Videla, and the list goes on….

          • Pofarmer

            Look, you can string together how ever many logical fallacies that you would desire. But the point remains, is the organization that remains really the church envisioned by Jesus and the apostles? A large percentage of Christians say No.

          • Jason Wills

            What “logical fallacies” have I strung together? Can you name any?

            BTW, an even larger percentage of Christians (over 50%) say Yes.

          • Pofarmer

            Argumentum ad populum, appeal to tradition, ad Hominem.

          • Jason Wills

            As far as I can tell, I haven’t committed any ad hominem fallacies, given that all of my statements and conclusions have stemmed from the topic of the discussion and not the personal identity of the interlocutor.

            You were the one making the argumentum ad populum (e.g., “a large percentage of Christians say No”), which wasn’t even accurate. I was merely correcting you on that point.

            You are quite correct in stating that the weight of tradition and popularity doesn’t necessarily prove that a given set of beliefs is true. However, the authority of a robust historical tradition and spiritual witness should give one pause when considering those beliefs.

          • Pofarmer

            “(e.g., “a large percentage of Christians say No”), which wasn’t even accurate. I was merely correcting you on that point.”

            How was I incorrect? I didn’t say majority? Something hovering around 50% is, indeed, a large percentage, then, figure in the % of Atheists around the globe who were once Catholic, and? Interesting, I found that around the world, close to 20% claim no belief. Wouldn’t have guessed it was nearly that high. Would also wonder why countries who have been full part and parcel of the Churches “historical tradition” are becoming Atheist at a greater rate than even the U.S. Ireland is a good example. And they are doing it in a country where over 90% of the schools are controlled by the Church.

          • Jason Wills

            The Catholic Church is the church instituted by Jesus, with his disciple Simon Peter as the first bishop:

            “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

            “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

            (Matthew 16: 18-19)

            The Catholic Church, true to its name, is the only real global church. Among the world’s faithful, the center of gravity is shifting from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

            Since the ecumenical outreach of the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, the Church has doubled its membership from 650 million to 1.2 billion, and it is still growing.

            The Republic of Ireland is a very small country of only 4 million people. The decline of the Church in that country has much to do with the secular government, the shrinking population and the lack of new priests there.

            You really ought to do better research before making such frivolous and impertinent comments. Although it seems to me that you hold an intransigently hostile attitude toward the Church, so perhaps there is not much point in discussing the matter with you anyway.

          • Pofarmer

            I do have a hostile attitude toward the Church, I’ll happily admit that. It’s come from experience dealing with it. Now, as far as your mentioning the center of gravity of the Church shifting, that is also true, I mean, look, we have our first SA Pope. But, isn’t it interesting that it is shifting to parts of the World that are poorer? So, is this the wealth effect the author was talking about, or is it something else? And, in the same time frame you are referencing, World Population also doubled.

          • Jason Wills

            I really don’t understand the point of your comment. Are you suggesting that the Church should just be meant for complacent people with comfortable lives in stable, developed countries?

            Indeed, it is right and fitting that the Church should be most robust in the places of the world where it is most needed:

            “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

            “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

            “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

            “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

            “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

            “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

            “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

            “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

            “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

            “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

            “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

            “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

            (Matthew 5: 3-16)

          • Pofarmer

            Or, to be less charitable, taking advantage of the poor and uneducated.

          • Jason Wills

            I really wouldn’t expect any charity from you. What have you done for the poor and uneducated lately?

            However, the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world.

          • Pofarmer

            Jason, arrogant condescension is NOT the best quality of the Church or it’s adherents. But it is certainly on display in this thread.

          • Jason Wills

            You could certainly do with a few lessons in humility yourself.

            You really have nothing to say anyway. Why don’t you just go troll somewhere else?

          • Pofarmer

            Simply put, someone needs to stand up to the Arrogant Authoritarianism of the Catholics. If that makes me a bigot, so be it. This started out with a simple statement that you could not accept, namely, that North Korea deifies their leaders and operates partly as a theocracy. You challenged it, so I backed it up with a Christopher Hitchens quote(from a guy who was actually there) which you detested, so I gave you a quote from CBS news, which listed no less than three ways that North Korea did, in fact, diefy their leadership. You could have accepted a simple statement of fact and moved on. But you could not. Your arrogance would not allow it, so here we are. Stop trolling, indeed.

          • Pofarmer

            But see, Hitchens WASN’T the best I had to back up my case. That’s sort of the point. I gave another independent source that the information was correct. I think your Venom here says more about you, frankly. You’ve not refuted anything. All you have done is confirm your own biases. “North Korea can’t be a theocracy because it is a heresy” is not an argument against the fact. It’s just that, in your eyes, it’s not a LEGITIMATE theocracy. Which is also true.

          • Pofarmer

            “For the faithful, only the See of Rome is guided by the Holy Spirit. ‘

            That seems like rather a cop out, and not at all biblical.

          • Jason Wills

            If you actually bothered to read the Bible, you would see that that is not the case at all.

            Actually, I should have said “only the See of Rome is infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit.”

          • Pofarmer

            Don’t assume things.

          • Jason Wills

            Please don’t say inaccurate things which only betray your lack of knowledge about the Bible.

          • Pofarmer

            Look, I am really not interested in getting into a debate over Catholic vs Protestant theology and who leaves out what, and I don’t think our host is either.

          • Jason Wills

            If that’s really the case, I don’t know why you’re trying to start one.

        • Pofarmer

          “God is love and nothing else.”

          Is this the same God who commanded the Israelites to murder rape and pillage? The same God who drowned everyone in Noah’s day when he could have just expressed himself to them instead? The same God who let’s people go to hell instead of making his presence unmistakable? It’s a horrible bit of theology, among many the Church clings to. It’s an affront to logic and reason. and, how did a “God who is love and nothing else” create everything, anyway?

          • Jason Wills

            Oh dear! You have absolutely no understanding of Old Testament theology whatsoever.

            To help rectify the problem, I recommend reading Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God”.

            http://www.amazon.com/God-Moral-Monster-Making-Testament/dp/0801072751/

          • Pofarmer

            Too busy reading “Demon Haunted World”, Letters from Earth, Gospel Fictions, The Mysteries of Acts, Sex and God, How religion distorts Sexuality, The Dragons of Eden, The life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, The Star of Bethlehem, a skeptical view, Why people believe Weird Things, and a few others to worry about Old Testament Apologetics.

          • Jason Wills

            I’m just trying to help. If you really can’t be bothered to research the subject properly, you shouldn’t make silly, ignorant comments about it.

  • William J E Dempsey

    But if secular society has been more “fruitful,” isn’t that a sign that it has been more favored by God? So that secularity actually, is favored by God. And its own new definitions of god, even agnosticism, is just.

    • connorwood

      > But if secular society has been more “fruitful,” isn’t that a sign that it has been more favored by God?

      Only if you have a prosperity theology, or a Weberian Calvinist one. Jesus has some pretty clearly negative things to say about wealth in the Gospels.

      • Jason Wills

        Tell that to Joel Osteen. (Actually, I think he already knows, he just doesn’t seem to care.)

  • amanimal

    Thanks Connor, you packed quite a bit of interesting stuff into this one post – took me back to reread:

    ‘The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual’, Sosis 2004
    http://evolution-of-religion.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/sosis-2004-american-scientist.pdf

    It’s also interesting in that a substantial increase in energy capture may have also played a role in the rise of moralizing religions:

    ‘Explaining moral religions’, Baumard/Boyer 2013
    http://artsci.wustl.edu/~pboyer/PBoyerHomeSite/articles/BaumardBoyer2013TiCS.pdf

    (see Box 3.)

    … and another mating strategy we picked up from our prelingual cousins:

    ‘Love gifts in the animal kingdom’
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16987410
    :)

  • Pofarmer

    To make an on topic comment here. And this is something I’ve mentioned before on other parts of Patheos. But, why did Europe become generally more secular than the U.S. when it started out under pretty much the complete control of Religion? Look at Switzerland, probably the most Atheist country in the world today. They once gave a city to John Calvin. Look at Denmark, with their Church population collapsing. Well, we sort of know what happened in France. Heck, look at Spain and Italy, still massively Catholic, but with birth control use reportedly higher than the U.S. Could it have been that these countries were economically prosperous first? I dunno, the U.S. motto became “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free.” Part of the thought is that Europe, from the start, sent over their religious zealots(Purtans anyone) and also groups like the Lutherans from Germany who were rejecting unification of the Church their. We also know that there was some level of religious strife in the early colonies. Look at Ireland today. They are becoming secular at a high rate now, despite the Church still controlling over 90% of primary education. Why did/are all these countries, seeing the full power and glory of their religion, decide that it would be better to ditch it? Could it be a wealth effect? As Europe sent it’s poor to the U.S. did it get less religious. Could it be an intelligence effect? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. also, if you look at the countries on the globe that remain quite highly religious, you will find a lot of awfully poor countries. SA comes to mind, and many African countries.

  • Jim

    This article has kept me thinking for a while. Thanks. My most recent idea is that this idea of negotiated relationships vs ritualized ones is a huge disadvantage to people who don’t have the wealth they need to be able to process them. I have a couple of families in my congregation that are examples of very messy blended families. They spend a lot of time, energy, and money negotiating the relationships involved. And they can’t afford it. I wonder if the cultural prevalence of negotiated relationships and norms over ritualized ones doesn’t add another advantage to the wealthy and give another disadvantage to the poor.

    • connorwood

      > I wonder if the cultural prevalence of negotiated relationships and norms over ritualized ones doesn’t add another advantage to the wealthy and give another disadvantage to the poor.

      Absolutely. And this is such a keen insight I might write a post on it, if you don’t mind!

      In a “theory of the leisure class” sense, having complicated, negotiation-demanding relationships may in fact serve as a social status signal – in fact, I’m sure it does at many elite colleges, where it is often trendy for students to “try out” novel social arrangements, sexual styles, and so forth (cough cough Smith College cough cough). Nearly all of these elite experiments take a tremendous amount of energy to negotiate, as you point out; and one of the most popular motives for using a lot of energy has always been to DEMONSTRATE that one has a lot of energy to use. So an undergrad who’s publicly and self-consciously bucking traditional relationship structures may very well be unconsciously advertising his/her status. A cynical view, but probably an accurate one.

      At the same time, it’s the social experiments conducted by people who either have the requisite surplus energy or who are forced into difficult relational contexts that give society its “mutations,” on which social evolution depends as much as its Darwinian counterpart does. If nobody ever tries anything new, there won’t be much flexibility in the culture, and it might not be able to respond adaptively to new challenges. The fact that experiments cost energy doesn’t mean they’re automatically bad.

  • hombre111

    Actually, it strikes me as a left brain, right brain sort of thing. Read “The Master and his Emissary, by IAIN McGilchrist. The left brain is analytical and and abstract, and can’t see larger realities. Wouldn’t expect religion and God to make a lot of sense in that world. The right brain thrives on ritual and symbol, with a sense of deep connections. Western civilization with its self styled elites is more and more left brain.

    • connorwood

      I think more and more neuroscientists are dismissing the traditional “left-right” hemisphere distinction, so I’m a little wary of bringing that up. However, I think your point is a good one – there are certain cognitive styles that make religious belief look absurd, and these cognitive styles also happen to be the ones that aren’t good with context, holistic constructs, or social symbols. (But the ARE good at math, problem-solving, and abstract reasoning.) Thanks for reading!

  • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

    I’m wondering what all the rituals done by animals (including us) demonstrate? You’ve pointed out marriage demonstrating a public commitment, time spent at meetings as an expression of commitment (which I fail to see how this doesn’t happen in secular life), and rutting demonstrating fitness for reproduction, what else is there?

  • MaryLouiseC

    And yet grief counsellors tells us that the people who are part of a religious community are more likely to loved, supported and walked through a healthy grieving process than the non-religious. In fact, they say that atheists are the worst at providing support for others who have lost their health or their loved ones or their jobs, etc.

    I guess if you consider wealth the be all and end all of life, then you should stick with atheism. But it’s a bankrupt worldview in many other respects.

    • connorwood

      > they say that atheists are the worst at providing support for others who have lost their health or their loved ones or their jobs

      Do you have a citation for this claim?


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