Is Religion Good for Us? Former Dawkins Acolyte Now Says Yes!

Maybe religion is beneficial, after all. That's the natural inference to draw from psychologist Susan Blackmore's sudden reversal of her long-held position that religion is a parasite on human existence.
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Maybe religion is beneficial, after all. That's the natural inference to draw from psychologist Susan Blackmore's sudden reversal of her long-held position that religion is a parasite on human existence. She now declares that while religions have their dark side, the evidence shows they make believers more generous, cooperative, and honest than non-believers -- and, most importantly, more reproductive.

[I]t seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as "viruses of the mind" may have had its day. ... [U]nless we twist the concept of a "virus" to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. ... This is how science (unlike religion) works: in the end it's the data that counts. Being shown you are wrong is horrid, but this has happened to me often enough before (yes, you may make jokes if you like) and one gets used to it. This shock may not be as bad as when I discovered I was wrong about the paranormal, but it's still a shock.

Poor Blackmore. Despite her attempt at intellectual honesty, she's going to be raked over coals by atheists, misappropriated by apologists, and at the end of the day, I fear she'll find that she's right in everything but one crucial point: the tense of her verbs.

I, for one, have long been convinced of religion's adaptive role -- in our past. The crucial question is whether it has become maladaptive, even toxic, in today's world. I will come to that in a moment. First, a little background.

A decade before the 9/11 attacks, zoologist Richard Dawkins infuriated some and inspired others by declaring religion to be "a virus of the mind":

Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by [imagining] how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).

1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as "faith.''

2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief. ...

3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that "mystery,'' per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility.

One of those most readily inclined to accept the idea was Susan Blackmore. Having recently abandoned belief in ESP, the subject of her doctoral thesis, she was primed to go hyper-empirical. And so she did, becoming the foremost popular champion of memes. The "virus of the mind" label for religion seemed a perfect fit. She gave it big play in her 1999 book about the mind, The Meme Machine.

Please don't get the idea that I am mocking her. I met Blackmore at a conference in Atlanta back in 1999 and found her smart, insouciant, and, with an oft-evolving splash of dye in her hair, just that little bit needful of attention and approval. Her willingness to shift on so emotive an issue as religion commands respect.

Yet many will question her claim. It's much easier to see its validity if we put it in the past tense: How could religion have been adaptive? There are several ways. First, as Blackmore hints, the most successful religions are those that promote maximal reproduction. It should be noted, of course, that this is not a necessary feature of religion. Some have done the opposite: the Shakers had a no-sex doctrine. As any evolutionist could have predicted, they quickly went extinct.

So, there must be more to the claim that religion is adaptive. How about the other features Blackmore cites: cooperativeness, generosity, and honesty? These are all traits that figure only in group selection. To assert that group selection takes place is a heresy in most contemporary Darwinian circles, but having broken with Dawkins this far on religion, Blackmore might as well go the whole hog.

If she's seeking a guru for group selection and religion, she can't do better than David Sloan Wilson. In his 2002 book Darwin's Cathedral, Wilson lays out a persuasive (though not conclusive) case for religion as an adaptive mechanism allowing groups to cultivate the very traits Blackmore listed: cooperation, generosity, and honesty.

Wilson's thesis is, to indulge in a little evo-speak, that in-group altruism allows one society to outcompete another. It's not hard to believe this when you compare an every-man-for-himself country like Somalia with, say, Japan, which takes in-group cooperation to an extreme yet has been brilliantly successful. Peering into our past, it appears plausible that in various ways religion has acted to compel people to make the necessary self-sacrifices for a society to succeed. A common feature of religions, Wilson finds, is that they promote, and often enforce, altruism.

But, as they say in a stock prospectus, past performance is no guarantee of future return. Whatever religion's virtues during our long evolutionary history, the balance has clearly tipped. If you accept that our survival now depends on a transition to a peaceful, sustainable global civilization, and right soon, then it becomes clear that religion is the single biggest obstacle blocking that transition. Not all religion and not only religion, but chiefly religion. To be specific, the fastest-growing versions of religion promote a militant hatred of other religions, a rejection of science and its findings, an absolute belief in the authority of doctrine, and a catastrophic reproduction rate.

In a very narrow, technical sense, it is still possible to argue that religion is adaptive today. However, it's a bit like saying that in a hundred-yard dash whose finish line is a clifftop, the runner who is speeding ahead will be the winner. Personally, I'd rather be the panting and perspiring guy who slows down, looks ahead, and turns back.

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