God and Genes

By Nicolas Wade
The New York Times, November 14, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior. Its universality shows it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

But that religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. Evolution has endowed people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, culture then supplies the content of what is learned.

We can see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have helped in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing. The sustained rhythmic move- ment induces exaltation and emotional binding to the group. Rituals help weave the social fabric.

The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago would have lived in small groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion bound them together, committing them to put their community's needs ahead of their own self-interest. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.

The idea that natural selection can favor groups, instead of acting directly on individuals, is controversial. But the highly egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies gives altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. And intense warfare between groups favors community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and religion.

A propensity to learn the religion of one's community became so firmly implanted in the human neural circuitry, according to the new view, that religion was retained when hunter-gatherers began to settle in fixed communities. In the hierarchical societies made possible by settled living, rulers co-opted religion as their source of authority.

God and Money

By Michael Fitzgerald
The Boston Globe, November 15, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Religion and economics have long been intertwined. Religious communities create bonds of trust and shared commitment among small groups, both necessary qualities for lending and trade. All the major religions extol virtues like self-discipline, sacrifice, and thrift. Some even preach that earthly success translates to good things in the afterlife.

Robert Barro, an economist at Harvard, and his wife, Rachel McCleary, at Harvard's Taubman Center, analyzed data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed either Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain beliefs in developing countries. Increasing belief in hell correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven has a less pronounced effect. Mere belief in God has no effect.

Charles M. North, an economist at Baylor University, argues that private property protections developed by the Church to guard against both secular rulers and the grasping popes and bishops of the medieval church gave Catholic nations stronger protections for individual rights than other nations. Similarly, literacy seems clearly connected with economic development, and mass literacy is a Protestant invention.

Many think we can just pluck out the secular lessons from the new findings and no longer need religion as a spur. Barro and McCleary think religion and policy are difficult to mix. McCleary says the lesson of their results is that we should recognize religion has some value and avoid regulating it too heavily.

God and Nietzsche

By Stephen N. Williams
Books & Culture, November 5, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith
By Bruce Ellis Benson
Indiana University Press, 296 pages

Bruce Benson argues that Nietzsche retained his native Pietism. He aspired to become a disciple of Dionysus. This way of life is rightly called "piety" when we observe the continuities between Nietzsche's background Pietism and his later quest.

Music was a vital and central force in Nietzsche's life. For Nietzsche, music forms the soul. As far as he was concerned, once he had shrugged off the baleful influence of Wagner, music assumed its proper office of fostering spiritual health and cheerfulness. Pietism was a heartfelt way of life.

Benson argues that Nietzsche experienced some kinship with Paul. But we need far more analysis to read much into the contrast between Nietzsche's attack on Paul's distortion of the gospel and an attack on Paul's theological belief, given that Nietzsche holds Paul responsible for inventing Christianity.

Benson calls Nietzsche pious because of certain structural similarities between his Dionysian faith and Pietism. Is this a hint that it matters if a superficial atheism turns out to be an ersatz religion?

AR  I find the genes and money arguments convincing, and also mutually reinforcing. They tend to support my Godblogs position, inchoate as that position unfortunately still is, that our religious experience is the autophenomenology of genocentricity. As for Nietzsche, I don't see any payoff in questioning his declared atheism.