One of the difficulties in discussing religion is that it is not a single phenomenon. It is a belief system, a social structure, a moral paradigm, a set of rituals and practices, and a sense of identity. Typically, when a critic of religion advances a hypothesis about something that religion “causes,” he is shouted down from all sides by people claiming that it’s not “religion,” but some kind of social phenomenon that is operating alongside religion.
This kind of goal-post shifting is frustrating, but ultimately, it is just a diversion from the reality of cause-effect factors in what we can loosely term “the religious environment.” A 2010 study published in the science journal “Social Cognition” has pinned down one functional difference between believers and non-believers. In an article curiously titled IN DEFENSE OF RELIGION: SHARED REALITY MODERATES THE UNCONSCIOUS THREAT OF EVOLUTION, researchers have verified the predictions of “Shared Reality Theory” with regard to believers’ perceptions of evolution and atheists.
[E]xposure to evolution-related words reduced the religiosity and anti-atheist prejudice of participants who perceived their religious experience to be unshared with their fathers, but not of participants who perceived their religious experience to be shared with their fathers… [E]xposure to evolution-related words reduced the religiosity and anti-atheist prejudice of insecurely attached participants but not securely attached participants. Together results suggest that dynamics in religiosity and religion-related prejudice are regulated by the two key elements postulated in shared reality theory: relationship quality and the degree to which relationship-relevant experiences are perceived to be shared.
In lay terms, here’s what it means. Humans are highly susceptible to beliefs about other people’s reality. In experiment after experiment, it has been proven that we consciously and unconsciously adopt the worldviews of those around us. The effect is profound when we want to be liked and accepted, but it is also quite strong in adversarial relationships, as well. (Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of this.)
Subjects with strong “shared reality bonds” with their religious fathers showed marked resistance to viewing atheists or evolution favorably. Similarly, subjects with “secure attachments” to religion (read: strong social bonds) were unlikely to change their views. In other words, the social bonding and shared reality of religious commitment are responsible for hostility towards atheists and evolution.
To put this in a more direct way, religious adherence and the reality sharing it causes are responsible (at least in part) for the seemingly inexplicable resistance to the overwhelming evidence that evolution is fact. (Though it is difficult to compare such things, it is often said by biologists that the empirical evidence for evolution’s existence is at least as compelling as the evidence for gravity. And evolution is actually better described in some ways than gravity.)
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