Polymath Jared Diamond (he has three full careers as an evolutionary ecologist specializing in birds, as a membrane physiologist, and as a popular writer) has written a new piece in Salon about religion: “Jared Diamond: It’s irrational to be religious.” It’s an excerpt from his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which I haven’t yet read, and his take is interesting.
Diamond is clearly an atheist, and regards religion as a superstition. But, taking a cue from Dan Dennett, he asks why religious beliefs take the particular form that they do; that is, why do people as groups adhere to such palpably foolish beliefs? (Indeed, from Tertullian to Kierkegaard, the faithful have made a virtue of necessity, saying that one believes in things precisely because they are absurd! And yes, I know that interpretation of Tertullian is in dispute.)
At any rate, Diamond asks why such belief in absurdity, and his answer (one suggested by others as well) is that it’s a way of bonding through group solidarity, something I hadn’t thought about:
The more of one’s life is wrapped up with one’s group, the more crucial it is to be able to identify group members correctly and not to be deceived by someone who seeks temporary advantage by claiming to share your ideals but who really doesn’t. If that man carrying a Boston Red Sox banner, whom you had accepted as a fellow Red Sox fan, suddenly cheers when the New York Yankees hit a home run, you’ll find it humiliating but not life-threatening. But if he’s a soldier next to you in the front line and he drops his gun (or turns it on you) when the enemy attacks, your misreading of him may cost you your life.
That’s why religious affiliation involves so many overt displays to demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment: sacrifices of time and resources, enduring of hardships, and other costly displays that I’ll discuss later. One such display might be to espouse some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of our senses, and that people outside our religion would never believe. If you claim that the founder of your church had been conceived by normal sexual intercourse between his mother and father, anyone else would believe that too, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your commitment to your church. But if you insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was born of a virgin birth, and nobody has been able to shake you of that irrational belief after many decades of your life, then your fellow believers will feel much more confident that you’ll persist in your belief and can be trusted not to abandon your group.
I’d add here that, if you have a non-divine and purely functionalist origin of religion, you are better at demonstrating your sincerity if you really have that sincerity: that is, such displays won’t bond you to your group unless you believe that others believe them, and you believe them as well. There’s no genuine bonding, for instance, if you take a sacrament purely to demonstrate solidarity. (Of course, this is precisely what happens in Scandinavia, where religious ritual is just that—ritual that doesn’t denote belief. But that isn’t the way Christianity originated.)
Diamond goes on to show, though, that there’s a limit on this rational irrationality:
Nevertheless, it’s not the case that there are no limits to what can be accepted as a religious supernatural belief. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have independently pointed out that actual religious superstitions over the whole world constitute a narrow subset of all the arbitrary random superstitions that one could theoretically invent. To quote Pascal Boyer, there is no religion proclaiming anything like the following tenet: “There is only one God! He is omnipotent. But he exists only on Wednesdays.” Instead, the religious supernatural beings in which we believe are surprisingly similar to humans, animals, or other natural objects, except for having superior powers. . . Hence it doesn’t surprise me that gods in many religions are pictured as smiting evil-doers, but that no religion holds out the dream of existing just on Wednesdays. Thus, religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying. That’s why they’re so believable, despite at the same time being rationally implausible.
That sounds good, but it seems to me that some religions do come close to “Wednesdayism.” One of them is Scientology. I don’t see Xenu and thetans as emotionally plausible and satisfying. But of course Scientologists don’t learn that stuff until they’ve already invested thousands of dollars satisfying their emotional needs with the E-meter.