Evolutionary Studies of Religion – Answering Jonathan Mair

1 February 2013 by Michael Blume, posted in Evolutionary Studies

One of the great scientific chances of the Web is the possibility of interfaculty and international dialogue. As I had posted "It's about fertility, stupid!" about the reproductive potentials of religiosity, anthropologist Jonathan Mair answered with three blogposts of his own, each containing some critical questions to the field of study in general and my contributions therein. I'll gladly try to answer now, hoping that the debate will be informative for readers enjoying the exchange of arguments.

Blogpost 1: Is it just affiliation?

In his first blogpost, Jonathan asked whether I might have missed that my blogpost "depends on the premise that affiliation to these groups as revealed in, say, censuses, is a reliable indicator of religiosity".

Well, no, we haven't missed that. Understanding diverse perspectives concerning religious affiliations, beliefs and practices is mandatory in German Religionswissenschaft (the scientific study of religion). That's the reason we are combining multiple qualitative and quantitative approaches and databases for testing and refining respective hypotheses.

Actually, our very first empirical study on the subject of religion & demography back in 2006 explored which factors played a role in determining the higher numbers of children among religious Germans in comparison to their non-religious peers. Among the findings (you may download the article for free here) are those pointing out that religious practice (i.e. frequency of prayer) is correlating stronger with the reproductive success than religious self-declaration.

 Two Graphs from the German ALLBUS database, 2002, by Blume et al.Credit: Blume, M. et al. (2006)

Jonathans blogpost concludes with the assumption that my perspective "excludes from his analysis ‘those religious communities who do not build and support families … (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers)’.". This is feeling rather odd as the graph I added to my blogpost is featuring i.e. those very Shakers... They are also mentioned and discussed in some of the linked articles and in blogposts such as: "The Shakers and Their Importance for Evolutionary Studies"...

So, let's just proceed to...

Blogpost 2: But you haven't been there, in the past

After repeating some of his objections from blogpost 1, Jonathan is bringing up the very classic aimed against evolutionary theory and evolutionary studies in general: You can't know for sure because you haven't been there! Maybe it's all just storytelling! There's "plenty of evidence that the idea of a discrete religion that comprises a combination of {(i) an exclusive, systematic religious doctrine + (ii) exclusive use of certain religious practices + (iii) a specific and exclusive religious affiliation} is a relatively recent invention that is even now by no means the norm, and which requires a great deal of policing to make sure that people defined by any one of these characteristics are also defined by the other two."

Yes, sure. But I wonder where I (or Darwin himself) wrote anything about religion starting with "exclusive, systematic religious doctrine" and "specific and exclusive religious affiliation"? The widely accepted evolutionary definition of religiosity (dating back to Darwin himself) I brought up in the post named "beliefs in superempirical (or supernatural) agents" - including ancestors, spirits, angels and demons, gods and (according to Darwin: finally) God.

Let's read the founder of evolutionary studies himself, in his famous "Descent of Man" (1871):

"Belief in God – Religion. – There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still ex-ist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their lan-guages to express such an idea. The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator of the universe does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture. [...] “If, however, we include under the term "religion" the belief in unseen or spiri-tual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost uni-versal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose."

Source: Evolutionary Studies of Religiosity and Religions, started by Charles Darwin. Lecture given at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB), 2011.

In a sense, the very logic of evolutionary thinking is not to assume that traits and traditions "just happened", but to trace their evolutionary histories to roots and causes. These empirical reconstructions are always falsifiable by better variants, fresh findings and data. They are no more "just-so-stories" than reconstructions of dinosaurs, which we have never encountered, too...

And concerning the assumed link of cooperative and reproductive potentials of religiosity ranging to the past, I'd just like to point out

1. If empirical (quantiative and qualitative) studies are pointing out cooperative and reproductive potentials in today's languages, arts and religions, it's reasonable to assume that these potentials emerged in the past.

2. Ranging back to the oldest mythologies available, family topics are highlighted in religious traditions. For example, the first biblical commandment according to Jewish tradition is Genesis 1,28: "Be fruitfull and multiply!" And the legendary struggle between the emerging Israelites and the Pharao in the story of Exodus is about the demographic performance of the Monotheists...

3. Finally, early religious art is featuring dominantly female "Venus figurines" depicting women being fertile or even giving life (birth). And there's a very close connection to the observation of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and others concerning humans to be "cooperative breeders".

Venus of Tursac - Female figurine giving birth, ca. 25.000 yrs BPCredit: Venus of Tursac - Female figurine giving birth, ca. 25.000 yrs BP

Of course, I'd agree that every evolutionary hypothesis HAS to be falsifiable by better data and arguments - that's the point in every empirical science. But I do think that those findings already available are strong enough to assume that the cooperative and reproductive potentials of today's religious communities had their predecessors ranging back in history.

Blogpost 3: Seculars could make it, too... somewhere!

In his third and (yet) final post, Jonathan discusses a central empirical finding from my original post:

We found many religious traditions that were able to attain high levels of fertility throughout the generations. But in sharp empirical contrast, we didn’t find a single non-religious community, movement or population that was able to retain at least replacement level (two births per woman) for a century!

At first, Jonathan tries to show that there "could have been" some highly fertile, non-religious groups by presenting a historical, communist propaganda project aimed at lifting birth rates (which clearly indicates that there was a problem, right?). But, alas, neither did Communist (or National Socialist, or Humanist etc.) groups retain high birth rates nor did they thrive for a single century.

But if no empirical falsification is available, this could be due to the "historical novelty of secularism. The idea of having communities or institutions that exclude religiosity (on your definition) simply does not have a long history."

Well, for one, that's the very topic: If religion would not be an important or even necessary component of societal live, we should expect at least to find some historical examples of thriving non-religious groups. If there are none, that's a strong argument for assuming that religion cannot easily be replaced. And historically speaking, there have been non-religious worldviews ranging back to Greek and Indian antiquity, together with prominent teachers and followers. But they just never managed to build sustainable traditions.

Then, numerous non-religious communities started during the 19th century in the USA. My favorite example have been the scientific-egalitarian Icarians, who managed to inherit land and buildings in Nauvoo, as a Mormon community had been driven away. In their peek time, the community had more than 500 members! But, alas, the Icarians dissolved like all other secular communities, whereas the Mormons are still thriving today.

To transfer the anecdotical to the empirical, anthropologists (!) Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler explored "cooperation and communal longevity" of religious and secular communities founded during the 19th century within the USA. The results are pretty clear and congruent to all those already mentioned: Strict religious communities turned out to be far more lasting than secular communities, which tended to dissolve rather quickly.

Credit: Sosis & Bressler 2003

And there's no shortage of more examples - such as the Israeli Kibbutz movement, which started dominantly with secular communes. But nearly all of them dissolved one way or the other - whereas the minority of religious Kibbutzim grew into a solid majority. (Of course, the overall demography of Israel, or Turkey, or the US... are other points in case.)

Everyone is free to believe there "shall be" fertile, non-religious groups in the future. But concerning the past, the findings are pretty clear: Although there have been abundant possibilities, no human population lacking religious mythologies has ever been found to succeed in evolutionary terms for just a century.

So, I want to thank Jonathan Mair for the chance to clarify some issues concerning evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions here. Although it should be clear that blogposts have their limits concerning scientific discourse, I hope you enjoyed the exchange and got some interest in a relevant and thriving field of scientific study.

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