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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, Religion

Religion and Cause

Culture predates religion.   Of this, there can be little doubt.  Whatever the origin of religion, it could only have been created after the necessary cultural elements were in place.  Culture must have preceded religion, for religion is a culture-dependent construct.  Knowing this, we can say with certainty that culture caused religion.  However, any other discussion of religion and cause gets convoluted very quickly.

I recently weighed in on a forum thread concerning the genocide of the Native Americans by the Christian European colonizers.  Many of the commenters felt that Christianity was a significant causal agent for the genocide, but I do not.  I believe the Europeans’ primary motivation for conquest was land, resources, and by extension, power.  Though we cannot go back and run history through, this time without Christianity as the dominant force in Europe, I think we can safely assume that the vastly technologically superior Europeans would have conquered the Americas regardless of their religious beliefs.  (We should also note that regardless of their intention, their job would have likely been done for them anyway by pathogens.)

One of my regular readers has been frequently critical of the blame I heap on religion for a vast array of societal ills, and in light of this recent discussion, I wanted to explain in more detail how I believe religion and society coexist.  I think many atheists misuse the word “cause,” and I’m sure many theists misunderstand what atheists mean when we say “religion causes this or that societal ill.”

To begin with, it’s probably not fair to say that religion causes very many things at all.  Certainly prayer is an example of something that would simply not happen without religion, but beyond rituals and activities specifically directed at perceived deities, it’s very difficult for me to think of anything that would not exist at all if religion did not exist.

So right off the bat, let’s be clear:  Religion does not cause societal ills.

What does it do, then?  To answer this, we need to examine what religion does to the human mind.  As I’ve explained many times, religion by its very definition is unscientific, and therefore inherently less likely than science to arrive at any truth whatsoever.   (To what degree it is less likely is up for debate.  I believe that religion is virtually never likely to arrive at scientific truth.)  So right off the bat, we can say that belief in religion reduces the mind’s likelihood of believing in objectively true things.  We can argue about how much untruth religion produces, but I believe that would be highly individual to the religion and the person in question, so we probably shouldn’t bother with it just yet.

A second thing religion clearly does is create a justification for otherwise unreasonable practices.  I must stress that religion is probably not the only thing that does this, but that is beside the point.  When the witch trials were in full swing, the equivalent of torture was justified publicly by citing passages from the Bible.  Inquisitors put hot pokers under fingernails while singing hymns to God and encouraging the victim to endure the pain for the good of his eternal soul.  Parents reprimand their children for sexual exploration because their church teaches them that sex is evil.  The list can go on and on.

Here, we need to be very careful, though.  We must ask the question:  Did religion cause sexual repression, torture, and witch hunts?  Strictly speaking, no.  Human males have always been interested in subduing the outward sexuality of females.  It’s part of male nature to want to jealously guard females from other males.  Sexual repression is a predictable expression of this instinct.  Humans also have the natural propensity to torture, and scapegoating is as old as culture.  Religion did not cause people to have these urges.

What religion does do is exacerbate bad behavior as well as justify it.  Humans will always do bad things to other humans.  However, with the justification of God, they can do so with a clear conscience, and with exceptional vigor.  We will always be sensitive and easily manipulated through our sexuality, but with religion (remember — by definition, less likely to be true than science) we can be convinced that otherwise normal and natural sexual feelings and practices are evil, and we can be controlled to a much greater degree.

Certainly culture creates religion, but once religion exists, it in turn shapes the culture.  It’s a circle, not a line.  Once religion has shaped culture, culture reinvents religion to reflect its new shape, and the cycle begins again.  It is simplistic at best and naive at worst to say that either culture or religion is the ultimate cause of anything.

In the final analysis, this clarification of cause doesn’t change any of my accusations towards religion.  Religious indoctrination is still child abuse, sexual repression is still harmful, and theocracy is still one of the worst forms of government imaginable.  In the end, the question of cause is a minor philosophical quibble, but precision is better than vagueness in matters such as these, so we might as well make sure we’ve got things straight.



24 thoughts on “Religion and Cause

  1. I disagree that culture predates religion. After all, many primitive societies, like the pygmies, have religion. In fact, many primitive societies are monotheistic. I am sure you have heard of Wilhem Schmidt who studied primitive tribes last century. Would you consider these primitive peoples to have culture? And, how do we know for a fact that culture predates religion?

    Posted by earthking | May 12, 2009, 8:51 pm
  2. AWESOME!!!!!

    Posted by Mr. Atheist | May 12, 2009, 11:25 pm
  3. I disagree that culture predates religion. After all, many primitive societies, like the pygmies, have religion.

    Consider: What do you need to have a religion? You need a group of people who agree on something. What is a group of people who agree on something? A culture. If there was not a group of people to agree on something, they would not have agreed on religion. When I use the word culture, I’m referring to culture in the sociobiological sense, not the colloquial or anthropological sense.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 13, 2009, 12:05 am
  4. When talking about the causal role of religion in collective immoral behavior, it is worth specifically mentioning the role of religion in creating and reinforcing group identity. All of the worse things humans do to each other depend on dehumanization of the target: Another human has to be seen as non-human in some way — as fundamentally and irredeemably other — to undermine or bypass the natural inclination towards sympathy and empathy which forms a substantial part of the behavioral & motivational psychology of our highly social species. (Sociopaths are primarily characterized by lacking the capacity for sympathy/empathy, but not all the people who do horrible things to other humans are sociopaths.)

    Few human inventions are as effective at creating and enforcing us/them divisions as religion. Religious communities frequently impose a very strong and very exclusionary sense of group identity: We are the elect/God’s Chosen People/blessed. They are infidels/blasphemers/sinners/unclean. The psychological impact of such a classification system not only makes it easier to think of them as deserving various kinds of exclusion and maltreatment (up to and including genocide), it makes it actively more difficult to feel sympathy or empathy for their plight when they are targeted for maltreatment by one’s fellows (or anyone else). Other ideological frameworks can have the same group identity dynamics and psychological impact — and thus create an environment ripe for mass murder and other crimes against humanity — but historically the only ideologies to do so have shared many common features with religion, such as an emphasis on pure belief/dogmatism, authoritarian social hierarchy, and a tendency towards idealized heroic figures (e.g. Chairman Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution).

    Of course, not all religious traditions have such a strong us/them dynamic of group identity. Then again, not all religious traditions give birth to witch hunts and crusades and jihads and pogroms. As Stephen Weinberg rather famously said, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” Or, I would add, another ideology that shares many common features with the kinds of religions that lead people to rationalize evil behavior.

    Posted by G Felis | May 13, 2009, 2:09 pm
  5. In regards to culture as just a group of people who agree on something, I disagree with your definition. In fact, America has a culture and many sub-cultures, and we don’t necessarily agree on anything all the time. Moreover, from your definition of culture, one could conclude that culture predates science. After all, there is no science without a bunch of people who have theories. Therefore, it would follow that science is just hogwash. In fact, science is used for good and for ill. Look at the nuclear bomb and Nazi experiments on human beings. And, in regards the comment about how religions enforce group identity, so do other types of groups, like gangs. I think the theory that religion is bad is false. It would be more correct to say that humankind/mankind, is endowed with many flaws and we ALL tend to take advantage of people.

    Posted by earthking | May 13, 2009, 4:22 pm
  6. Thanks for clarifying that Hamby.

    To clarify my position, my issue is that too many atheists focus on the justifications of the behaviour rather than the underlaying cause.

    My argument is that getting rid of the underlaying cause of the behaviour in the first place, is far more effective than getting rid of one [of the many] justifications of it. They focus too much on that single aspect of it.

    Though I do agree that getting people to hold their views less dogmatically would help, but getting to the core of the issue would be much more effective.

    Anyway, I might come up with a response to the OP if I see something.

    Posted by Alison | May 13, 2009, 9:24 pm
  7. In regards to culture as just a group of people who agree on something, I disagree with your definition.

    If it makes you happy, substitute the word “society” for “culture.” I’m using them interchangeably in this context. Here’s the definition from E.O. Wilson’s text, “Sociobiology”

    “A group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized in a cooperative manner. The diagnostic criterion is reciprocal communication of a cooperative nature, extending beyond mere sexual activity.”

    To be slightly more precise, I am using “culture” to mean a cooperative group within a society. Consider that whales have culture. Individual populations separated by geography often have slightly different songs, hunting techniques, and other cultural elements. Various primates have culture. The list is actually quite long. Please don’t confuse the colloquial understanding of culture with a simpler and more scientific one. Pre-humans had culture. Homo sapiens inherited culture from our ape-like ancestor, and expanded it greatly, but make no mistake. Religion did not predate humans, but culture did. (Actually, it’s possible that some of the now extinct rivals to Homo sapien had some kind of religion, but even if we found evidence that our ancestors had some pre-religion, it would just push the argument back one step. It wouldn’t change it.)

    Culture does predate science. By millions of years.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 14, 2009, 12:37 pm
  8. Alison, can you be more specific?

    Which underlying cause of human nastiness do you want to get rid of? As GFelis and I have both pointed out, humans are genetically programmed to do bad things to others given certain conditions. To be more specific, “evil” is part of the ESS, or evolutionary stable strategy. You’ve seen me do the example of the Doves and the Hawks, right? If not, just check out The Selfish Gene, where I got the example.

    If human nature cannot be changed (and if you’ve found a way to change it, there’s a Nobel Prize waiting for you) then only the environment can be changed. If we eliminate the environments that encourage bad behavior, we will lessen bad behavior. Isn’t religion the “environment” in question? If not, what is the underlying environmental condition we should change such that religion wouldn’t even be an issue?

    Posted by hambydammit | May 14, 2009, 12:41 pm
  9. I have the Selfish Gene I just haven’t read it yet.

    Anyway, this goes back to my “Is violence ever justified thread?”

    Take two examples

    1] A liquor store robber from a poverty stricken neighbourhood

    2] A terrorist from a country where his ethnicity is oppressed.

    In 1] I would argue the cause is poverty where 2] the cause is oppression.

    My issue is when atheists [not necessarly you] immediatly jump on religion and refuse to dig deeper to determine what may actually be driving the action.

    Here I would argue that maybe the robber got layed off, because his factory moved to Mexico, or that the terrorist just saw his family killed by the oppressors.

    In both those causes, I would argue that addressing those would be far more effective than handing out copies of The God Delusion.

    Posted by Alison | May 14, 2009, 1:27 pm
  10. Alison, I believe you’re mixing apples and oranges here. With all due respect, I think you should read The Selfish Gene with all due haste. There’ve been some minor modifications to the Selfish Gene Theory since he wrote it, but you could pretty much hold an intelligent conversation with an evolutionary biologist after reading it.

    I don’t think anyone who’s familiar with Game Theory, human nature, and evo bio would suggest that there isn’t a link between the liquor store robber and poverty. Hell, the bank right down the street from my house was robbed yesterday, and it didn’t get robbed once during the economically prosperous years leading up to this depression.

    What it really comes down to is that oft-used quote (see GFelis’s comment) about how good people will always do good and bad will do bad, but religion gives good people a reason to do bad. Put in more evo-bio terms, whether or not a person is morally good or bad is largely determined by their environment. If the environment encourages bad behavior, there will be bad behavior. Religion, or at the very least, the monotheistic religions dominating the planet now, encourage bad behavior. Religious adherence is in the same class as poverty in this respect. Poverty breeds robbery. Religion breeds intolerance, exclusionary behavior, and us-them dichotomy. It breeds repression, oppression, and guilt.

    Do you see what I’m getting at? Some people fight poverty because it increases the likelihood of robbery. I fight religion because it increases the likelihood of all those things I’ve written about.

    In short, I think you’ve got your panties in a twist because of the word “cause” but most of the respectable science-minded atheists I know don’t suggest the kind of naive cause-effect relationship you seem to think we do. I don’t spend a lot of time at atheist websites where it’s just kids enjoying their first taste of freedom from religion. I’m happy they have a place to vent, but as you well know, I’m not here to vent. I’m hear to teach.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 14, 2009, 1:53 pm
  11. But Hamby, remember the Portugal Greece and Cyprus stats I posted? Remember how I keep saying the difference between Theists from different countries and even the same country?

    If religion promotes bad behaviour, then we should see all the religious countries with high crime rates. Why? Because they already have as you say, the excuse to do bad, and yet they don’t do bad.

    In my view, this needs to be explained for me to swallow the Weinberg quote
    [for the record, fellow physicist Dyson expands “For bad people to do good things it takes religion”]

    I say both Weinberg and Dyson are wrong.

    Posted by Alison | May 14, 2009, 2:11 pm
  12. Yes. I remember your stats from Cyprus, Portugal, and Greece, and I fail to see how they should dissuade me from believing in the overall trend indicating that secular countries tend to be more functional than highly religious ones.

    If religion *CAUSED* bad behavior, we should expect to see all religious countries with very high crime rates. If religion exacerbates bad behavior, we should expect to see a *TREND* towards religious countries having higher crime rates. We should also expect that some factors tend to lower crime rates, even in the presence of religion, and should not be surprised when some countries don’t seem to fit the trend. For instance, if there was a 90% Christian country with virtually no gun crime, we might note that there was a steep criminal penalty for any and all gun possession, and that gun ownership was illegal for everyone except the military.

    That’s all the explanation you need. The trend is solid, and there are exceptions which can be explained by some other cultural factor. Why is that so hard?

    Posted by hambydammit | May 14, 2009, 2:25 pm
  13. There are not enough stats with religous minority to really make a solid trend here.

    “For instance, if there was a 90% Christian country with virtually no gun crime, we might note that there was a steep criminal penalty for any and all gun possession, and that gun ownership was illegal for everyone except the military.”

    Three issues with this

    A] The laws shouldn’t matter. Even if it were illegal for gun ownership, the law doesn’t stop criminals.

    B] You would have to prove that, for example, Portugal has strict gun laws. You cannot dismiss it simply as “other cultural factors” without listing said factors.

    C] The U.S has few gun laws and that can most certaintly account for the U.S’s high murder rate. You cannot dismiss say Portugal’s low gun crime rate for their laws and then not take that into account for the U.S.

    You cannot dismiss one side as “cultural” and not take culture into account for the other side.

    “We should also expect that some factors tend to lower crime rates, even in the presence of religion, and should not be surprised when some countries don’t seem to fit the trend.”

    You would have to list them and prove that said country has them, and also take into account that there are factors that raise crime even in the absence of religion and show that they cannot explain the high crime rate alone.

    And also, those countries such as Sweden, Denmark etc…. the still believe in some “spirit or life force.” so I do not think they are completly divorced from religious influence.

    Posted by Alison | May 14, 2009, 4:36 pm
  14. In other words Hamby, the study you cite, does he isolate his own variables and rule out others?

    If not, then it doesn’t really show a trend and nothing can really be derived from it, nor can it be used to support something.

    Posted by Alison | May 14, 2009, 7:28 pm
  15. I’m just curious how any of you would handle the argument that communist countries killed more people than the Nazi’s, and not by a small percent. Communists are generally atheists. Isn’t atheism just as dangerous? Communism is a recent phenomenon and is essentially atheism with a highly centralized government. It killed millions of people. Example- Soviet Gulag.

    Posted by earthking | May 15, 2009, 4:55 pm
  16. I’m just curious how any of you would handle the argument that communist countries killed more people than the Nazi’s, and not by a small percent.

    What’s the argument? Yes. Communists have killed lots of people. Are we done?

    Communists are generally atheists. Isn’t atheism just as dangerous?

    Why would atheism be just as dangerous when you just said that communists killed lots of people? Are all atheists communists? That would be news to me.

    Communism is a recent phenomenon and is essentially atheism with a highly centralized government.

    Um… have you ever read a book about communism? Show me please, how to fill in the blanks in this argument:

    1) There probably (or certainly) is no God.

    2, 3, …..) ?????

    Conclusion: Therefore, Communism.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 15, 2009, 6:58 pm
  17. Yes, I have read books about communism. I have also studied the ideas that led up to communism, Ex. Hegel and Kant. I concede that not all atheists are communists. However, when you look at the former Soviet Union, the government blatantly tried to stamp out God and persecuted people who practiced religion. So, while I would agree that not all atheists are communists, I point to communism because there were so many atheists in communism. I view the atrocities of communism as being rooted in atheism. I just find it extremely difficult to accept the notion that religion in general is a bad idea and causes atrocities when so many atheists have done the same.

    Now, I will also note that I do not think that being an atheist de facto makes you a bad person. I know atheists who are wonderful people. I also don’t think going to church services, masses, synogogues, temple, etc. makes one a good person. Good wills make good people and bad wills make bad people. To sum up my view, I would say that atrocities are caused by something other than religion itself.

    By the way, I enjoy this conversation with you. I am really trying to understand the other side which is why I am doing this. In no way am I trying to bash anyone. So, bear with me.

    Posted by earthking | May 15, 2009, 7:20 pm
  18. By the way, if you want me to write in syllogistic form, I can.

    Posted by earthking | May 15, 2009, 7:20 pm
  19. hambydamit, I went to grab a burger for dinner and was thinking further about your previous response. Correct me if I am wrong, but with my example of communist atheists, you would attribute the massive killing to communism, not atheism, especially the idea of a strong central government that tries to root out dissenters. Am I sort of on the right track? Once again, I am trying to understand your position.

    Posted by earthking | May 15, 2009, 7:47 pm
  20. I view the atrocities of communism as being rooted in atheism.

    Fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. Can you demonstrate the truth of your opinion? I’d love you to give me the syllogism leading from:

    1) There is probably (or certainly) no God.


    2) Therefore, Communism.

    I just find it extremely difficult to accept the notion that religion in general is a bad idea and causes atrocities when so many atheists have done the same.

    First, try to separate yourself from the idea that atheism is anything positive. It’s not. It’s just the answer “no” to the question: Is there a god?

    Second, realize that no sensible atheist says that only religion causes atrocity.

    Third, realize that all of the people and groups who have been atheist and committed atrocities have done so in the name of some ideology or another. Communism is most certainly an ideology, and has religious elements to it. That is, blind adherence to the principles of communism despite a complete lack of empirical evidence that it works, combined with demands for complete loyalty to the state regardless of personal conviction, etc, etc.

    Finally, realize that there are certainly atheists in the world who have trouble with the Golden Rule. I’m sure if you dig deep enough, you can find an example of someone who has killed someone else “because there is no god.” The thing is, I don’t have to do more than scratch the surface of history to find stacks of examples of people who have killed “because there is a god.”

    So please try to disabuse yourself of the notion that I’m saying getting rid of religion will stop humans from doing bad things to each other. Also, try to wrap your mind around the idea that any philosophy which says anything about the way the world “really is” must, by definition include base premises besides atheism. The reason I keep harping on the syllogism and atheism is very simple. Nothing at all follows from atheism because atheism doesn’t state what IS. It states what IS NOT, which doesn’t tell us anything about what IS.

    1. There is probably no god.
    2. ???
    3. Therefore, ???

    Posted by hambydammit | May 15, 2009, 8:17 pm
  21. Yes. I attribute the deaths in the name of communism to communism.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 15, 2009, 8:19 pm
  22. Hammydamit, I will concede that it is possible for communists to commit so many atrocities in large part to the communist ideology, and not necessarily because of atheism. So, we can somewhat agree on that. And, I am happy to hear you write that both theists and atheists commit wrongdoing. So, I would say we are in agreement there, too. I was also surprised by how you also wrote that even if we did away with religion altogether, people will still commit wrongful acts against one another. I concede there as well. I really think the cause of all the atrocities could be in humanity itself, i.e., it is easy for human being to use one another. Would you agree?

    By the way, I actually did learn something from your comments. I come from a religious and philosophical background, and I think it is critical for me to be able to understand other viewpoints. You have obviously thought about your views for a long time and I can respect you for that.

    Posted by earthking | May 18, 2009, 8:29 pm
  23. I suppose there are atheists out there who believe ending religion would end all human atrocity. I’ve never met one. Like most popular perceptions of atheists, this is something religious people say about us to try to make us look stupid.

    As I said, I believe religion is a handy excuse for people to justify lots of things — not just atrocity, but various acts of legislation, exclusionism (They’re not true Christians!), homophobia, misogyny, and a host of other ills. To be completely fair, religion is not the root of the entire problem. It’s just the most prevalent manifestation of the problem — most prevalent by far. The root problem is the concept of faith. The belief that some things are true despite all evidence to the contrary, or a total lack of evidence, and that some things are true because they “just feel true” — this is what allows people to say that gay marriage is wrong despite the fact that homosexuality is prevalent throughout the whole animal kingdom. It is what allows people to tell their children not to masturbate, or to avoid sex until marriage. It is what convinces people that watching horror movies will open their bodies to possession by demons. That women don’t deserve equality with men.

    I could go on for a long time. My point is not that religion causes people to want to do these things. It gives them permission and even encourages them.

    Again… contrary to popular belief about materialism, the logical conclusion to a study of natural morality is that most of the atrocity committed in the name of religion, communism, and other ideological isms is wrong, and for good, logical, rational reasons. When we toss out the idea that some things should just be believed without evidence, we are forced to look at the evidence, and the evidence leads to better morality.

    I’ll write more on this in a full blog post soon. Keep your eyes open.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 19, 2009, 2:50 pm
  24. Amen hambydammit!

    Posted by Mr. Atheist | May 19, 2009, 11:26 pm

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