Jared Diamond: religion is rationally irrational

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.


  1. Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    What’s going on in the title is two senses of ‘rational’: prudential and epistemic, respectively. Often, it is in your best interests (prudential) to believe something unjustified or unreasonable (epistemic).

    Interestingly, this often occurs in political behavior as well. People have lots of irrational beliefs about various candidates, and at the very least, rarely take the time to do protracted research, in part because doing that research (becoming epistemically rational about candidates) rarely has any effect on whether that candidate is elected–thus it may be prudentially rational to be epistemically irrational here as well.

    I recommend Mike Huemer’s article, “Why People are Irrational about Politics,” for more on this.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      In the case of both religion and politics being “epistemically irrational” may pay off under particular circumstances in the short term, if enough of the population behaves similarly. But doing so is deleterious in the longer run for the population as a whole.

      For example, our politics really sucks precisely because a significant portion of the voting population are “epistemically irrational” when it comes to voting for politicians. Even in the context of individuals it is not likely that this will have a positive pay off. It is not an advantage to help vote into office politicians who’s subsequent behavior will, nearly uniformly, be contrary to your best interests simply because you don’t know how, are unwilling or are too lazy, to alleviate your ignorance. But that is exactly what happens to a large percentage of the US voting population.

      • Posted January 17, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink


        Right, that seems to be a way that voting epistemically irrationally could harm one in the future. But since (especially in, say, Presidential elections) one’s vote has only a tiny probability of making a difference, it might be prudentially rational to reason this way:

        I will feel good by casting a vote for Smith, so I will cast a vote for Smith, even though I don’t really know anything about the candidates or the issues.


        I will feel good by joining and giving money to Religion X, so I will join X, even though their claims are ridiculous.

        Yes, if everyone behaved that way, then we end up with the worst outcome, but people individually are motivated to behave epistemically irrationally, and it may be overall prudentially rational for them. If I feel good by doing X, and it only has a tiny probability of harming me, then maybe I should do X. (Setting aside moral considerations and looking only at prudential rationality.)

        Thus, interestingly, both politics and religion are a bit like collective action problems.

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Interesting site. I have to say, however, that any site that purports to address reasons that people are irrational about politics that give no “hits” when searched for the word propaganda is missing some important hypotheses.

      • Posted January 17, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink


        Yes, that seems as if it could be a source of irrationality.

        I think Mike would say that the effects of propaganda are expressed or intensified by people not using their time to check the claims of the propaganda independently. They just believe, e.g., what some biased news source tells them. So they behave epistemically irrationally with respect to the propaganda.

        In contrast, if it’s impossible to check the reliability of the propaganda–if the deception is complete and unavoidable and overall convincing–then it might not be epistemically irrational (from the perspective of the believer) to trust it.

  2. Kevin Alexander
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I am right now reading The World until Yesterday.
    I just finished the part about tribal warfare. Nothing for us to emulate there. They have no way of keeping prisoners so they just kill everyone they can. I don’t know if they say their god tells them to do it but it seems likely.
    What we could learn from them is the often elaborate ways they have to avoid war since it’s even nastier for them than it is for us.

    • RFW
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      That take on “tribal warfare” is a gross generalization, and very misleading. A common exception to it involves slave-taking, such as made the Haidas feared all along the coast of BC in the bad old days. Slaves captured by the Haidas for paddling their big canoes had their knee tendons severed so they couldn’t run away.

      [Allegedly – given that among the artifacts found along the Pacific NW coast are stone “slave killers”, used at potlatches when one wanted to demonstrate one’s wealth by killing a few slaves, this allegation is entirely believable.]

      • microraptor
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Really? I wasn’t away that there were any Pacific Northwest tribes that had a sufficiently agrarian lifestyle that the culture of slave taking would have been considered profitable. Got any good links for more information on that tribe?

    • Posted January 17, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

      You should not speak of “them” as if all tribes were/are the same.

      The Maori of New Zealand were famed as warriors, but/therefore also exquisitely diplomatic. The rituals of encounter are still elaborate today, commonly lasting half a day or more as meeting tribes sound each other out in an exchange of elaborate speeches and songs, held on a courtyard (marae) in front of a meetinghouse with traditional areas designated for guests and hosts and a space between them. There are roundabout ways of saying “No” and a cough can be a strong warning. Only when the ritual is complete do the sides approach each other for handshakes and nose-pressing (hongi), and enter the house (the realm of peace) for substantive talk.

  3. @eightyc
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    The issue is that people don’t know how to evaluate evidence. Actually they don’t even know what constitutes as evidence.

    Someone should write a popularized book about what sorts of things constitute as evidence.

    • Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      That should be what every child is taught in school (and at home, but little chance of that).


    • RFW
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      This ground has been covered many times already. Both Tom Paine and Baruch Spinoza pointed out that that taking somebody else’s word for something is no proof at all, a philosophy that leads to the justice systems rejecting “hear-say” evidence.

    • Posted January 17, 2013 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      Yesterday I was in a “debate” on a website where opinions may not be challenged. Someone said they would do something I disagreed with “because that’s all we know”. I said “You presumably have a computer, but your parents didn’t. Human progress has only ever been achieved by going into the unknown.”

      One of the moderators felt she was contributing to the discussion by saying “My aunt Emily doesn’t have a computer.”

      I was soon banned from the site.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        I was soon banned from the site.

        I’d take that as a badge of honor…

  4. Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    “There is only one God! He is omnipotent. But he exists only on Wednesdays.”

    Hmm… wouldn’t that be Woden? Oh. Wait.

    & §


    • Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink


      • Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        Wooooh, it’s a miracle, I didn’t put that emoticon in there, I just typed colon parenthesis to make a home-made smile…

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          Such god-like powers – all hail the Mighty Lou!

          • jesse
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

            I’m such an atheist and such a contrarian to symbols that I have taken to putting a space btwn. my : and )

            Thusly, The Great Smiley Face will not appear, except to those with a Greater Vision.

        • gengeneris
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          Punctuation goes in, emoticons goes out. You can’t explain that.

          • gbjames
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            lol. And my minimum daily requirement of chuckles is provided. Thank you.

            • Timothy Hughbanks
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

              Indeed, I the post brought me to WEIT, but the high-quality wisecracks keep me coming back.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Surely a god that can only exist on Wednesdays cannot simultaneusly be described as omnipotent?


      • Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        But it takes great power to exist only some of the time! Can you?


        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          Actually, God almost exists on other days – he plays golf. I’ve watched golf on TV (yeah, I’m the one) and there is nothing closer to not existing than playing golf on TV.

  5. Kevin Meredith
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained” strongly recommended here. He methodically picks apart the entire spectrum of superstition, disrobing the emperor without any need for stridency. I haven’t read a ton of books on religion but it’s hard to think of anything that could provide a more thorough explanation of the psychological mechanisms of religion.

    • Simon
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I second that. Excellent book.

  6. gbjames
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink


  7. Ralph
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I suppose Seventh Day Adventists come close to Wednesdayism. God exists at all times, and outside of time, but gets exceedingly pissed if you worship him on days that aren’t Saturday. 🙂

    • Posted January 16, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      That’s because he’s either busy with other religions or he has a date with Mary

  8. Flo M
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    So, religion is the analogue to a costly and therefore ‘honest’ signal (in the sense that its elaboration reflects the condition of its bearer) in biology. Just like the peacock’s tail. And much like that tail hampers the peacock’s ability to fly, it ties people to the ground so to say…

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      I was saying something like that just the other day, with reference to professing belief in flying horses.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 17, 2013 at 1:42 am | Permalink

      A most satisfying analogy!

  9. Matt
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I’m really surprised you hadn’t thought of this before. A lot of this religious action is costly signalling, as Diamond suggests. Another example is the futile mormon missionary work. This is precisely why I don’t take seriously the notion, a la Bill Maher, that getting rid of religion will make us any safer. It confuses proximate and ultimate causation.

    RE: scientology, it’s clearly a mystery cult that disguises a crass business enterprise fleecing people of their money.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      I guess I’m just too dumb to have thought of this.

      • Matt
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink


        ceiling cat still loves you.

        Incidentally I was lucky enough to see FOUR kitties chasing one another around the front of our house and car this evening while installing a new car seat. A tuxedo cat, basement cat, orange tabby and a white one with some black spots.

    • DV
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I’m skeptical of the costly signaling hypothesis. Why would it be so important to signal one’s commitment to a religious identity? Normally costly signaling is a competition with the benefit accruing to the person who signals best. But I don’t think this is the case with religion. People can just do the minimum requirement (go to mass on Easter and Christmas) and reap the benefits of full membership. There’s no competition for craziness where obviously more benefit accrues to the craziest.

      Also the costly signaling hypothesis doesn’t explain anything more than ordinary indoctrination and club membership already can explain.

      And lastly, costly signaling is refuted by the frequent offshoots that do occur with religions. It would be truly disadvantageous to break off from orthodox dogma if the whole thing is an evolutionary contest of costly signaling. But the fact is that sects and cults continually break off and form new offshoots with innovations/revisions from the orthodox beliefs.

      • eric
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        Why would it be so important to signal one’s commitment to a religious identity?

        I think the point is, commitment to some arbitrary religious claim was used to signal one’s commitment to other types of social units. Like your family or clan or tribe or nation.

        To use the peacock example, one might ask why it is so important to have long bright feathers. But long bright feathers aren’t the message – health is the message. Long bright feathers is just an arbitrary way of showing that. Religious commitments are the long bright feathers. But the message being sent is that you share traits and memmbership in a group that goes beyond just the religious claims.

        Short version: its not “you take communion ergo you’re Christian, ergo I trust you.” Its “you take communion, ergo you share my other, non-religious cultural values, ergo I trust you.” Outspoken agreement with some ridiculous claim serves as a proxy for loyalty, which is hard to measure directly.

        • DV
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

          Doesn’t refute my point that religious commitment is unlike peacock tails. Individuals can get by with minimum participation in religion whereas peacocks have to compete for the longest/brightest fails.

          And religious commitment is now no longer a proxy for cultural commitment especially in multi-sectarian societies, yet religion still thrives. So costly signaling doesn’t explain why.

          • muuh-gnu
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

            > yet religion still thrives. So costly signaling doesn’t explain why.

            Of course it does. Religion isnt conceptually different than many other team-building memes people hold dear and fight for. Things like languages, nationalities, music, stories.

            Professing a common belief is not more nonsensical than learning a tiny language to communicate with “your people” when it would be better for everyone to abandon the tiny language and adopt a bigger one.

            It really is just a way to gain trust by paying a price, an initiation rite.

            • DV
              Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

              It is one thing to say that religion is a marker of cultural identity. It is another thing to say that religion exists BECAUSE it is a marker of cultural identity.

              No one would argue i hope that language exists because it is good for cultural identity. Language exists for some other reason. It just gets co-opted as a marker.

              Same with religion. Religion exists because of some other reason (mind virus?) and gets co-opted as a marker. The fact that it is no longer even a marker now (Americans for example may be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc..) shows that its role as a marker or signal (much less a costly one) is not its true reason for existence.

              • Beth
                Posted January 17, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

                Perhaps that was the reason but it’s no longer valid. That would be consistent with the fact that the nones are increasing in our society. It takes a few generations for no-longer-needed traits to atrophy.

          • raven
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

            Individuals can get by with minimum participation in religion…

            That is these days.

            In the past, it was a lot different. Religion was a pathway to the top of society. At one time, the Pope had armies and ruled The Holy Roman Empire.

            • DV
              Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

              Even in the past individuals still get by not being the pope, just like today.

              And getting to be pope is not a contest of who has the costliest display of faith, it’s just ordinary politics.

          • Posted January 17, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

            “And religious commitment is now no longer a proxy for cultural commitment especially in multi-sectarian societies, yet religion still thrives.”

            From outside the USA, the identification of Christianity (and grudgingly, Judaism) with Americanism seems very strong. Haven’t you had people in high places saying atheists can’t be real Americans?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

              Yes. We’ve had a President say this. (George Bush the First)

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      I think Jerry’s last paragraph is a good summary of why scientology is a cult not a religion.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        I don’t see that as a significant difference. Aren’t there (presumably) secrets of mainstream religions that you don’t get until you are well integrated into the system? If not, then why have seminaries? The only difference between a cult and a religion that I can see is that “cult” refers to someone else’s religion, especially if it is a minority form.

        • eric
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          Another wag put it this way: the difference between “cult” and “religion” is simply a couple hundred years of acceptance.

          • microraptor
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            I believe it was Frank Zappa who defined the difference between a cult and a religion as the amount of real estate they owned.

            • Mark Joseph
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

              And I think I read on this website a few months back that the only difference between a cult and a religion is spelling.

        • Posted January 17, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink

          “Aren’t there (presumably) secrets of mainstream religions that you don’t get until you are well integrated into the system?”

          Sure: Sophisticated Theology™, if you seem to be in danger of throwing over the traces of Naïve Theology™.

  10. Brian
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I just think Scott Atran has the most compelling etiological view of religion related to Diamond’s, that is religion = costly signaling = group cohesion = selected for via group selection in an era where group/cultural competition was important (and I know this latter claim is controversial, but I think we will see a lively debate on this in the coming decades). Religion reinforces reciprocal altruism that humans require to live in groups and the costlier the signaling (via absurdity of belief and what they chain an individual too), the more useful they are in group cohesion.

    See Atran’s “In God’s We Trust” and his debates with Harris, where my emotions go with Harris, but my brain knows Atran is really more accurate.

  11. pktom64
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Colbert had Jared Diamond as guest last night (Jan. 15):

  12. Andrew Fredriksen
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Some thoughts on group psychology.   A   PS – This is from a blog that I follow, as you may have guessed.


  13. Diego
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I really like Jared Diamond’s work in general, and this most recent idea connects with something I was reading recently about the Barbary Pirates and how Christian captives would often ‘turn Turk’, converting to Islam to get out of slavery. A subset would even become ‘renegadoes’, becoming corsairs in their own right.

    The converts who stayed in captivity might be ransomed and returned home, but would be looked on with suspicion until they could prove through various rites that they had honestly returned to their native religion.

  14. Gary W
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    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

    Pinker is skeptical of this hypothesis. If the purpose of religion is to produce group solidarity and its associated benefits, why didn’t we just evolve a (stronger) bonding emotion that would provide us with this solidarity directly, without all the costly features of religion (temples, sacrifices, worship rituals, etc.)?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Well I, for one, don’t think that religion is a direct product of evolution; I think it’s a cultural response to our environment. In that case the way to effect that response is culturally, not genetically.

      There’s no evidence, so far as I know, that religion is “evolutionary” except in the trivial sense of being a byproduct of our evolved brains and biology.

    • eric
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Well, keep in mind that the costly features probably didn’t just appear full-blown. They probably start out less costly, and get more costly only when there is some sort of ‘arms race’ style of pressure. For example, if the least loyal members of a group get sacrificed or incur some significant survival disadvantage, one could then see how religious signaling could spiral out of control. Group members in such a civilization would be constantly inventing new rituals to show how much more in-group they are compared to the other members.

      • DV
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think that is borne out by history of religion. There’s no arms race for costlier displays of religiosity. In fact I would argue religious display has actually lessened over time. It used to be your religion has terrible consequences – somebody gets killed at the altar, or gets burned at the stake. Now the only cost is 1 hour time on Sunday. And that’s not even a “cost” really in the sense that it would normally lessen your fitness. It can be argued that people who attend church on sundays gets some emotional and psychological benefit directly out of it. So they’re not wasting their time on Sundays to get benefits some other way, the benefit is received on Sunday itself.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          It could also be argued, more reasonably IMO, that the Sunday church-goers are NOT getting immediate benefits. Thus the Christmas/Easter church attenders… those many folk who put in the minimum time in order to stay in the club. If there was a weekly high to be achieved, attendance would remain the same throughout the year. No?

          • DV
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            You’re probably thinking that all church-goers have the same level belief. But in reality peoples “spiritual” attitudes are different. Those who go to church regularly are the ones who get something from it – they enjoy the music, they get spiritual uplift, etc. The ones who go only twice a year are lower on the scale of belief. They probably just keep the minimum attendance as a hedge – to stay out of hell in case it turns out there is a hell.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps the regular attenders just have a higher boredom threshold.

              • DV
                Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

                Or if they don’t get any high, maybe they really just believe there is a serious consequence to their afterlife career in the observance of the holy days of obligation.

        • Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Well, there certainly have been arms races.

          Quakers dressed sombrely to avoid the sin of vanity… and then tried to outdo each other in the sombriety of their dress. (Which was likely at a cost.)

          Eventually, this collapsed when someone realised that striving to be more sombre than others was itself vanity…


    • RFW
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Have you ever seen an old-school Masonic temple? Or an Odd Fellows hall?

      Once upon a time, fraternal orders were thick upon the land, but nowadays they are few and far between. Most of those still extant are either equivalents to the men-only longhouses some cultures feature, e.g. the Elks, which are (afaict) first and foremost a drinking club; others are associations of do-gooders (Rotary, Kiwanis), and some, notably the Masons, are distinctly quasi-religious.

      Some commentators have speculated that nutbar fundamentalist churches thrive because they offer their members social cohesion otherwise missing from dull lives. One can’t help but wonder if a rebirth of the fraternal order movement would undercut nutbar religion.

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    A friend of a friend was an early convert to Scientology wayyy back in the 1960s and that bailed out when he got all the Xenu / Thetan stuff.

    He said “I didn’t do all this psychological self-exploration in order to be persuaded of the truth of a bad science fiction novel”.

  16. neil344
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that I agree with Diamond’s argument. To be effective, a signal must be costly, otherwise someone can “fake it”. Believing in the virgin birth, or claiming to, is not costly. Believing that one should not take advantage of modern medicine, like Christian Scientists do, is costly. On the whole, I’m impressed with how the religious avoid the costs of their absurd beliefs. They may claim not to believe in evolution, but they don’t decline flu shots. They may claim to believe in heaven, but few are raring to die.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Appearing irrational is genuinely costly among strangers, but quite safe among the similarly afflicted.

      • neil344
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        But religion takes steps to protect its adherents from the cost of appearing irrational to strangers. It pushes to have religious beliefs given special privilege and not subject to questioning, even by those who do not hold the beliefs. As far as I can tell, the only strangers who are costly to the religious are we strident, militant atheists.

        • RFW
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          That’s far from universally true, as a cursory review of history will show. Nearly any weird cult could get traction in ancient Rome except those damned monotheists, the Jews and early Xtians.

          The insistence on special privilege seems to be a particular vice of Xtianity in its many manifestations.

          • neil344
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            Prior to the rise of science in the 16th century, there was not much distinction between rational and irrational beliefs.

    • Brian
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I would almost say faking it is good enough if the faking carries the same costs as the actually believing (I suspect most believers believe like we accept the license agreement on free software – we click without reading it so we can get the free goodies).

      Note what religious people fear of us atheists – that we won’t be team players, that tour atheism won’t commit us to moral behavior specifically with regard to group cohesion.

      • DV
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think that’s what religious people fear from atheists. I think what they fear is that their kids might see how we are doing so well without believing, and they seriously fear their kids may get swayed by our example and reasoning, that their kids would go to hell. Nobody wants their kids to go to hell, so that’s why they fear atheists.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          Brian, DV… these are not mutually exclusive possibilities!

          • DV
            Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t say they are mutually exclusive. I just think the fear that atheists won’t be moral is wrong. I have heard of religious people being afraid of actual atheists raping them or killing them.

            Now they do have an often stated fear that atheism itself will lead to social chaos if it becomes the norm.

            This is strange to me because there seems to be a fear of atheism but not of individual atheists. For example, I have heard of no religious person who is afraid that Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens would kidnap and rape and murder their children. Yet for some strange reason they claim that atheism if it takes hold will produce rapists and murderers.

            • DV
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

              In the first para that should be “I have NOT heard of religious …”

            • gbjames
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

              I’ve had actual conversations with religious zealots who maintain that jezuz is what keeps people from raping their children. (Really!)

              So, yes, believers can, and often are, afraid of atheists. This can continue pretty easily in an environment where most people don’t know that they even know an atheist, and non-believers think they are somehow the only one who doesn’t believe. That’s why the Out Campaign is so important. Visiblity is what turned the tide for LGBT folk and the same thing can happen with atheists.

              • DV
                Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                It’s slightly different i think with LGBT.

                They fear contagion (their kids may become gay too) and they fear harm (their kids may get sexually abused) from actual gays. so if they see a gay person they would avoid him for those 2 reasons.

                I contend that when religious people see actual atheists, they only fear contagion. They don’t fear harm.

                And the fear of contagion from atheists translates to what i said earlier as the fear for their children’s going to hell.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                I think you are missing the point about the LGBT comparison. The point was that the social tides started changing as LGBT people came out. As people realized that they know these folk, the abstract and irrational fears subsided.

                Atheists are in a similar situation, except not as far down the “coming out” road. As people learn that their sons, daughters, friends and co-workers are non-believers, the fear of atheism also diminishes.

              • DV
                Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                I get that the point that as they see more and more real atheists their acceptance of atheist individuals may change. In the same way that LGBT acceptance was facilitated by more and more people coming out.

                The problem is that when people learn what LGBT is really all about, they understand that it is really not contagious at all. But the opposite is true about atheism – their fear of contagion is well-founded because atheism is contagious (to the extent that ideas are contagious).

                So religious people may see that atheists are nice, but what a pity that they will go to hell. Unless they themselves get infected by rationality and doubt, they will continue to fear atheism for their children.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink


                I lose track of whether it is atheists or gay people who are responsible for most hurricanes. Sandy was really bad. Probably gay atheists were responsible.

            • microraptor
              Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

              I contend that when religious people see actual atheists, they only fear contagion. They don’t fear harm.

              I think the other thing is that at some level they feel insecure about their own religious beliefs and rituals but they also feel heavily invested in the importance of those rituals and beliefs as a foundation for being a complete person. The idea that someone could be brought up in a whole different way that didn’t involve all that unpleasantness and sacrifice disturbs them because, carried to its logical conclusion, it means that they’ve spent the majority of their life wasting their time and denying themselves simple pleasures, so they have to convince themselves that they haven’t wasted their lives and squandered opportunities doing the stuff they’ve done. And in order to do that, they have to convince themselves that atheists are inherently some sort of monster.

            • Brian
              Posted January 17, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

              I think you New Atheists pay too much attention to the rationalizations people give for their beliefs (and unbelief!) and not enough attention to the emotional intuitions that pre-exist those rationalizations. reason is a lawyer, giving arguments to support emotional intuitions – it does not create them. The emotional tail wags the rational dog. This is easy to see when you realize questions of open-ness to experience and groupishness unrelated to religion predict religiousity. When religious people voice their fears of atheists when it is stripped to the bone by questions that neutralize moral dumbfounding, it is ultimately a matter of we atheists can’t be trusted. They barely mask this fear as it is. All that stuff about sin and God is just window dressing on the real emotional stuff – what we could see on an MRI when they contemplate atheism.

    • DV
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      This is like the people who “believed” the world would end in 2 months but they did not stop paying their mortgages or still had their car’s oil changed. Their declarations of belief are not reflected in their actions.

  17. Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Very interesting. This seems to show that it’s rational for religious believers to resist non-believers’ arguments. Religion has a survival value; humans do best in cooperative communities and religion helps to bind them together and succeed.

    The ubiquity of religion in the world and in history argues that it provides a net benefit, enhancing the biological fitness of believers. This would be so even if the core religious beliefs are simply wrong! Crazy evolution, that!

    That there is a limit to rational irrationality is unsurprising; beliefs that impair group survival or success would tend to be deselected by nature.

    I look forward to reading Mr. Diamond’s book.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      That does not follow. Things can come into existence, spread, and become disadvantageous only over time. We carry many features that may have once served some purpose but no longer do.

      Also, there are a great many things that are ubiquitous and have no biological fitness value at all. Consider, for example, cigarette paper, remote air conditioner controls, and homeopathic remedies.

      • Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Things can come into existence, spread, and become disadvantageous only over time. We carry many features that may have once served some purpose but no longer do.

        gbjames, you are completely correct, of course. I should have noted that.

        But what remains is that the need for cooperative communities of people bound together to succeed persists even if religion is no longer the best method to bind communities together. It is not a given that religion is no longer optimal, and until something comes along to replace it, it might remain better than nothing.

        This is the challenge to non-theists: create a better alternative to religion. So far, I’m unaware of any actual alternative. I know Western Europe is close to being a “religion-free zone” but it has not been severely tested yet; how long it will last is uncertain.

        And merely proposing some alternative will not be enough; it will require a large buy-in from the general population. Something better has to be designed and people who can be must be persuaded. Otherwise change will not happen, and religion will remain.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          There is no shortage of non-religious cooperative communities. Anthropologists have a fancy word for them, sodalities. There are a gazillion of them. Everyone is a member in non-religious sodalities of one sort or another. Having religious ones evaporate (we can hope!) will not cause any of them to vanish. But there will be more space for the non-religious ones to grow.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      The ubiquity of religion in the world and in history argues that it provides a net benefit, enhancing the biological fitness of believers.

      That has often been argued in a group-selectionist way, but reality doesn’t work like that.

      The ubiquity of religion can be explained by (A) a net benefit to genes ‘for’ learning ability and credulousness during childhood, enhancing the biological fitness of those who believe and remember what they’re told by parents and other responsible adults (biological evolution in the ‘cognitive niche’),

      (B) a net benefit to motifs and stories that are impressive and easy to remember, or which promise reward to individuals who pass them on (cultural or memetic evolution).

      Kin selection (where religious creed and affiliation are good correlates of kinship) and group selection (where groups are hostile to each other and prone to fission) can both be facilitated by the costly-signal function of professed belief and observance.

      • Posted January 17, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        Your (B) rather reminds me of those chain letters that contained threats of something that might happen if one “broke the chain”, although it’s something that appears to have largely vanished. But, there does seem to be an element of that in religions.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:44 am | Permalink

          It’s all in Dawkins – as far as I know, his 1994 Letter in Nature about the St Jude chain-letter was where his ideas about ‘memetics’ first began to segue into a campaign against religious delusions.

  18. Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink


    The ubiquity of religion argues that it at least does not impose significant reproductive costs on adherents, and probably confers some reproductive benefit. Indicia of religiosity are about as old as any other human activity; some kinds of religious practices have occurred in every (or nearly every) culture we know about. It’s not likely that religion appeared full-blown in a single moment, no more than language is likely to have.

    It is possible that religion has spread and survived without providing any benefit, but I’m skeptical of that. You provide some other things that “can explain” the ubiquity of religion, but they are as tentative as that phrase suggests. You might be right, but there’s no strong argument for that.

    In contrast, I am not aware of any other human practice as old as religiosity which we don’t associate with some evolutionary advantage, perhaps you can mention one or two.

    Perhaps I’ve misread it, but it seems your last paragraph contradicts your point by positing that kin- and group-selection are facilitated by religious practices.

  19. Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I think I have heard this before somewhere. Similar arguments for identifying group members have been put forward for the evolution of languages & dialects – you identify with like humans, so need to share certain traits, whether physical, linguistic or cultural, or a mix of all these.

  20. Voltaire 2
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I cannot believe that a scientist and man who has spent so much time focusing on religion is suddenly surprised at the idea that people join religions and their various churches for the group solidarity. Seriously?

    You were raised Jewish. Even if you reject its tenents now, you must have understood the whole group thing.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I guess your insinuation here is that I’m either stupid or ignorant. I see no other reason for your having posted this.

      Yes, I’m perfectly aware that group solidarity is important in faith; what I wasn’t cognizant of was that hard-to-believe dogma was designed to foment that solidarity

      And what you wrote was snotty. Do you understand how your comment comes across, or are you ignorant about the nuances of human communication?

      • Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        I’m sure he thought it was the best of all possible comments…


      • neil344
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        And not only that, it is tenets not tenents! 🙂

      • robsica
        Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        Well, you should be cognizant of it because it’s been a central area of research in the cognitive evolutionary study of religion for at least a decade now.

        Good primers on the literature:



        Thankfully, a massive interdisciplinary project is underway that will make scientific understanding of religion available even to its most myopically vocal detractors:


        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

          myopically vocal

          and what sort of language do they use out there on the fringe of culty pseudoscience? ‘Cos it sure ain’t English.

  21. Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great observation. Another way of thinking about it is looking at the actual behavior-influencing content of a religious belief. The more behavior-influecing content in a belief, i.e. the more coherent the belief is about something in the world (or the more someone endorses the delusions with their actions), the higher the cost, when the belief is false. Therefore, if a false belief that actually affects people’s behavior manages to persist, something must be offsetting that cost – namely, the benefit of signaling loyalty to an in-group. This article encapsulated it perfectly for me:


  22. Owlglass
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t see Xenu and thetans as emotionally plausible and satisfying”

    They are “mechanically” (designer speaking) the same as karma and soul ideas. Everyone who wants to sell something must address some need. That need is often created through advertisent. Later religions are big in this: they knock on your door and tell you that you have this intangible resource which you will somehow need to secure your afterlife. The metaphors and framing can vary: either you have it already but its “locked” (thetans), or you have it, but its ill or filthy (catholicism) or you start out good, but must make sure you manage it well (Hindu) etc. Each neatly reflects the circumstances where the religion evolved. For the abrahamic religions concepts of the filthy and unholy or unclean are everywhere, so their ressource is framed accordingly. Scientology reflects a modern day american way of life view etc.

    Anyway, once the need is generated each religion of course claims it offers the best methods to manage this resource, after all, its the entry ticket to afterlife. Hence I maintain that religions are zero sum and offer next to no actual consolation. They “heal” previously inflicted wounds. A germanic farmer didn’t had to worry about his soul, until Boniface knocked on his door and told him that he really has something new to worry about.

    Abrahamitic religions have taken it a two steps further with “personal” feedback loops that hook up to different emotions to fuel piety. My general idea is that these emotions serve as a kind of fuel, so both the emotion is created and a religious “valve” is used to release the stress again. Some examples: they generate shame by claiming that thinking of sex would aleady go against said resource (i.e. sin as measure of soul-illness or filth). To come clean again, believers must frequently do two things: A) occupy themselves with the belief system, dwelling on it and B) do something visible that advertises and manifests the belief in the world. So in catholicism they must go to church, recite scripture, oaths etc. There are similar “fuels” of anxiety (from sudden events, but according to divine plan), fear, love and so on…

    The absurdity of religion is also important, in my view to keep the brains caught in a loop. In a way like Zen does, in a more obvious fashion. If your future depends on “getting” the trinity, you will spend alot of time thinking about it, and like a paradox it keeps your brain busy. The believer cannot leave the loop, because she is trained to take it seriously. This loop drives the other loops, so I think it is rahter important to have. Hence, religions are allergic to everything that is good for throwing believers off the loop, like not taking it seriously (ridicule, humor etc.). Humor indicated that we are “aloof”, above it (think of Alice, trapped in the rabbithole and strange loops, and how “above” means free again, or programming routines etc.)

    Sorry for the wall of text. Had to urge. 😉

  23. Posted January 17, 2013 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    Someone may allready have made the point, in the 80+ comments above. i still like to add it: I don’t agree completely on you observation of Scandinavian christianity: “Of course, this is precisely what happens in Scandinavia, where religious ritual is just that—ritual that doesn’t denote belief”. I’d say the opposite: ritual, collectivist christianity in Scandinavia extends as far as weddings, baptisms, and confirmation. However, only those devoted, and considering themselves to be ‘personal christians’ move on to communion. It’s considered an ‘honest signal’ by believers and non-believers alike, non-believers (including me) tend to look upon it with embarassment….

  24. Hugh
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Just came across this blog while perusing some book reviews. Interesting debate here. As a card-carrying (un)faithful atheist, I sympathize with Diamond et al., but I also can’t help but observe that there is a zealotry in the rhetoric of many other atheists in such posts that, to prove Jared’s point, is basically the same kind of slogan-shouting display of group membership as that which we see in religious groups. Psychologically (and perhaps, functionally) speaking, professing so vehemently to non-belief IS advertising group membership. It’s the old “our group is different from yours – let’s get them!”. Now, I happen to think we’re right, but so what? Again, that’s another similarity with the other group, not a difference.
    I’m not saying let’s not engage in such debates, only that, depending on how we present, we are open to criticisms of hypocrisy.
    Also, all this discussion about the evolutionary origins of religion seems to focus on examples of monotheistic “state” religions. These are relatively recent in our evolutionary history, as are the types of group rituals and sacrifices they engender. If there really was an EEA that gave rise to a psychological predisposition for submitting to an unseen and powerful causal agent(s), likely it would have been in the context of small, hunter-gather groups, such as Diamond’s New Guineans. If so, it’s hard to envision the need for displays of group solidarity when kinship ties, territoriality and kin selection would have done the job just fine. No, I agree with Jerry that religion is more a by-product of Theory of Mind – big brains mean all sorts of non-functional thoughts producing all sorts of non-functional behaviour, but the net benefits outweigh the costs of said brains. Human sexuality is a perfect example of that…

    • gbjames
      Posted January 17, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Welcome to the not-a-blog.

      Part of our atheist “display”, as you describe it, it purposeful. It reflects the process of large numbers of non-believers finding themselves not alone in a religion-swamped society. Atheists are finding that the only successful way to advance secular social goals and push back against god-soaked anti-science is to build community. Just as LGBT folk found that coming out of the closet was the only way to counter centuries of oppression, we, too, are in the process of “coming out”. That’s what the red A’s and other “signaling” is for.

      But yes, we are all humans. We all signal our membership in groups. As Frank Zappa once admonished his audience, “We all wear a uniform”.

    • DV
      Posted January 17, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      “slogan-shouting display of group membership as that which we see in religious groups”?

      And then in the second paragraph you actually disagree that religion is a display of group solidarity.

      Be consistent. Either you are convinced that beliefs (and their displays – including the act of argumentation in defense of such beliefs) are for the purpose of displaying group membership, or you are not.

      I think the most straightforward explanation for engaging in debates is that one actually believes the arguments one is making. Not that arguing for a particular view is a show of credentials – that’s a rather cynical view of why people argue or debate.

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