Atheists Caused Religion!

Okay, so that was a slightly hyperbolic title, but its inspiration is suitably fascinating: Massimo Pigliucci reports today on a recent study suggesting that religion spread through human societies thanks to the encouragement of non-believers.

The possible explanation is bizarre yet plausible. Perhaps, people feel as though a person who sacrifices to an imaginary deity is more likely to make similar sacrifices for the greater good of society, thus encouraging more trust. As Massimo explains:

This is a social version of a well-established evolutionary idea known as the “handicap principle,” where males who can parade useless and costly attributes (be they peacock’s feathers or Ferrari sports cars) are more likely to attract females because they are sending the indirect signal that their genes are so good that they can waste energy and resources just to please the female.

As I was reading his post on the topic, I couldn’t help but think of the never-ending debate amongst atheists and skeptics over whether or not to coddle believers. By encouraging believers (whether they believe in a religion, some “spirituality,” or other paranormal claim), do we only perpetuate the problem? And might it be possible to put religion to bed if we push the point that the religious are not in any way more trustworthy?

And can we ever convince anyone that a Ferrari doesn’t make up for lack of brains, charm, or sexual prowess?

Probably not. But it may be worth trying.

Interestingly, the first response to Massimo’s post is from someone who feels he used “hate speech language” simply by placing the word “irrational” in the same sentence as “religion.” If you haven’t read Massimo’s post, you may assume that the sentence was something along the lines of “religious people are irrational.” In that case, the commenter easily makes the point that we as a society (including many atheists) are, in fact, giving religious people way too much trust and protecting them from the reality that many of their beliefs are very much irrational.

However, the commenter is being even stupider than you think, thereby proving the above point to the greatest degree possible. He or she has branded the entry as “hate speech language” because of this sentence (bolding mine):

As bizarre and irrational as this sort of scenario may seem, there is independent empirical evidence, for instance from studies of Israeli kibbutzim, that religious people do tend to receive more assistance than less religious ones from the rest of the community, again perhaps because they inspire trust.

Massimo was not calling the religious bizarre and irrational — he was referring to the preceding scenario, which was the one I quoted above. He was acknowledging the fact that many of us will find strange the idea that nonbelievers are responsible for the spread of religion. The commenter was so focused on branding Massimo as some kind of evil person who was unfairly attacking religion that he or she failed to notice the obvious meaning of the sentence.

Could there have possibly been a more perfect example of the religious assuming an automatic and completely undeserved level of unquestioning respect?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. “Could there have possibly been a more perfect example of the religious assuming an automatic and completely undeserved level of unquestioning respect?”

    How about the fact that religions are tax-exempt institutions? WTF is the reasoning behind this?

  2. I’ve read a number of papers with similar notions regarding the origins of religion. Having spent a few to many years involved in church life I can say that quite often there is a quality of community support and framework for friendships that can be very positive for the individual and community. I find social anthropology and the ‘genesis’ of religions fascinating and one of the great puzzles of human evolution and social development.

    The response of the first poster was classic and shouldn’t have been unexpected given the characterization of the nasty, secular, skeptical, non believing, baby killing, moral zombie commie non believers in conservative religious groups.

    And when it comes to religion and sex its pretty obvious that having gods ear has been a successful social status men used to get what they wanted over the years.

  3. I wonder if anyone’s done specific studies on the likelihood of being a member of a religious community correlated to independence vs. co-dependence.

    I’m sure any sort of even vague correlation would piss people like that first poster on the article off more, but it’d be interesting to see the results.

    I don’t even mean that derisively, I’m just curious if religion tends to attract mostly people who are gregarious and need the support of others.

  4. @LtStorm said: “I don’t even mean that derisively, I’m just curious if religion tends to attract mostly people who are gregarious and need the support of others.”

    Since most people are brought up on religion, they are conditioned to need the social structure that their religious institutions put in place. Atheists are gregarious too; that’s why many of us like to be surrounded by people by living in the city, for example. Support can be found in family and in other organizations that are not religious in nature. Religion brings out the tribal mentality if anything. Us vs. them. Xianity vs. islam/atheist/hindu/etc.

  5. Yeah, the social and support aspects of religion are big draws, especially when there’s an absence of alternatives. Groups like Hamas or the Taliban rise in power when the secular and government support structures are destabilized. Wanting some community is just a basic feature of being a social animal. Religion is just another way of being tribal, but with it comes intellectual baggage.

  6. @LtStorm: The idea of religion “attracting” people of a certain type is a problematic phrasing (for me at least). A five year old is not “attacted” to religion; he or she is taught religion.
    I think I could get to the heart of your question better by reformulating your question as:
    Does the success of religous indoctrination correlate positively with co-dependent personalities? If so, does religion promote co-dependency or does co-dependency make one more likely to accept the benefits of a religion?

    I think there is a falacy in the question, though, because it has, as an unstated major assumption that religious belief is some sort of mental disorder.

    Yet evolutionary biologists, neurologists, and behaviorists continue to find evidence that the human brain is designed to believe stuff that isn’t true. All the underpinnings of superstition are naturally part of the human brain.
    Isolate a group of children on an island and they are certain to develop superstitions to try and explain a world which they can not understand or control. They won’t develop science. Science is a tool and it takes time to build; superstition is instinct. We are born with it.

    Belief in the supernatural is not a disorder. It’s just insufficient education.

  7. That commenter reminds me of a friend of mine, who is Catholic. When I mentioned how bizarre it was that only one person bothered to record the supposed act of zombies walking around after Jesus’ resurrection, he flipped out, saying that he was insulted when people called Jesus a zombie, as being “fully restored” is nothing like being a zombie.

    Of course, I wasn’t talking about Jesus being a zombie.

    (Even though he was. So there.)

    So, it seems like religious people expect unquestioning respect to the point that they will take offense prematurely.

  8. “””males who can parade useless and costly attributes (…) are (…) sending the indirect signal that their genes are so good that they can waste energy and resources just to please the female.”””

    1. A Ferrari an INDIRECT signal? Peacock’s feathers an INDIRECT signal? What would count as a DIRECT signal then, a nuclear strike?

    2. So, ultimately religion is all about ATTRACTING WOMEN AND MATING? What have we been missing, then?

    As with any good piece of science, though, this hypothesis raises a bunch of fascinating new questions:

    a) Why are there male Taliban at all? Shouldn’t only Taliban women have to feel attracted to hairy terrorists and, therefore, shouldn’t only they feel religious lust?

    b) Is Taliban women’s instinctive attraction to Taliban males somehow limited by their being locked at home by Taliban males?

    c) Because of their being male religious fanatics, does that mean that Taliban terrorists feel sexually attracted to each other?

  9. @Skepthink: With all due respect, I think you’ve missed the point, possibly by being confused by the reference to peacock feathers. Not all evolutionarily successful traits are those that cause the females to be attracted to the males – in the case of this research, the authors are suggesting that religion is/was successful because the community supports those who have it.

  10. Now seriously, I have a problem with one of the assumptions. Why is religion equated to a Ferrari/a costly item in the first place?

    Religion is CHEAP in all possible regards (it would be like having a Honda and BELIEVING it to be a Ferrari). It’s researching, funding experiments and doing science which is objectively expensive (the same as hand-crafting a Ferrari): you have to be able to burn any amount of whatever as many times as necessary in order to run any series of trial and error experiments. Without that, there’s no controlling for variables and there can be no actual science. So, religion is cheap, science is expensive, and were this “handicap principle” to apply at all, it should make geeks, not priests, sexy.

    Plus, there’s also a violation of necessary exclusiveness: Ferraris have a value because not everybody can have one, whereas religions expect everybody to convert to that religion, which makes the status of convert intrinsically unappealing. If anything, it would be priests who would be highly regarded, but this only explains why there is a hierarchy inside a religion once you already have a mass religion, not why that religion appeared in the first place.

    Thinking of “religion” is tricky: current religions are very different from all their previous manifestations; only small populations of extremists try to live at any given time in the same way as the original founders, and even in these cases they fail to ( even rabbis use mobile phones, cars and the Internet). So, religions change and the “origin of religion” is in fact a misleading term because a) it has not a single point as its origin and b) it has no distinctively unique origin: its origin is the same as that of any other idea. However, whereas normal ideas come and go fast because they become obsolete also fast (refuted by updates based on evidence), religion changes much more slowly because it only deals with abstract notions for which not even which type of evidence it would take to refute them is known ( family, Good, Evil, afterlife, etc.) Since there’s no adaptive pressure on these notions (because they’re much more useless than a Ferrari), they can remain essentially unchanged for hundreds of years as some sort of “Darwinian transiting fossil”.

  11. “Darwinian transiting fossil”
    A fossilized piece of Charles Darwin, similar to a theodolite that measures horizontal and vertical angles.

  12. @Rebecca: Yes yes, I see what you mean, I was not trying to be scientifically rigorous in that comment (sorry for the informality). Naturally, I agree that not all evolutionarily successful traits are those attracting females. In the particular case of the “handicap principle”, however, I don’t see any other advantage in being handicapped, I don’t think that the following reasoning can be true in most cases: “animal X has lots of body mass, which causes it to move slowly; that tricks predators into thinking that, if an animal so slow has survived so far, it must have some secret ability that makes it advisable not to attack it under any circumstance”. I am inclined to think that, in these circumstances, predators will inevitably and quite logically avoid making counter-intuitive suppositions and will feed on the slow animal. Perhaps if they previously witness that same animal killing another predator with poison, for instance, they will refrain, but in this case this would follow not from the handicapped principle, but from seeing the poison, which makes sense. Naturally, I am no expert on this topic and I am looking forward for any clarification, in case you or any other knows of instances of the handicap principle applying in non-mating behaviors and, more generally, non intentional signaling.

  13. @Skepthink: Believing is cheap, behaving in a way consistent with your beliefs is not. If your religion requires you to go to war for your people, to sacrifice to the community some portion of your wealth, to defend to the death a stranger of the same faith (and presumably community), or other things religion can demand of you, then your belief is obligating you to many things your community might reward, as an insurance policy of sorts. That’s what’s being equated to expensive feathers or cars. The handicaps don’t provide any benefits themselves, but they do give you social advantages that can more than justify their cost (most examples I’m aware of are cases of sexual selection for just that reason).

  14. Like many things in the media, the handicap principle has not only been simplified, but then anthropomorphized beyond recognition. This might be helpful:

    I am never comfortable with evolutionary biology as applied to human society, because it seems like it is always a bunch of “just so” stories.

    This one doesn’t make much sense to me either–although the reaction is, sadly, familiar.

  15. @Merkuto: So, what is expensive is the behaviors religion allows you to carry out, rather than religion itself? But that’s not on the same level we were talking before. Let’s assume going to war is the “benefit” we obtain from religion:

    1) A peacock wouldn’t have those feathers if they didn’t provide it with increased mating success.

    2) We wouldn’t have religion if it didn’t allow us to go to war.

    As you can see, whereas in 1) the peacock obtains a benefit (increased mating success), in 2) the only “benefit” we get is that of being able to go to war, which is not the benefit, but actually another sacrifice (you go to war to get increased safety).

    So, war, not religion, would be in this example the expensive behavior/trait which would result in a greater good (increased safety). War would be justified by that increase in safety (the same way that peacock’s feathers are justified by increased mating success), but religion cannot be “justified by war” because war is not a direct benefit in the first place.

    Religion is a completely different animal. I don’t think it can be compared to actual behaviors/traits, because it’s an idea. Ideas must be compared to other ideas (a mathematical theorem does not exert any selective pressure).

  16. @Skepthink: I generally agree, this might not be a very helpful perspective to look at religion from, but I’m not trying to support the idea. I was trying to provide an example of how the metaphor used could hold up, regardless of the truth of it. Explaining the self consistency of the claim, regardless of the truth of the premise.

    If I understand it, then, religion is being compared to the feathers because those things it can require of you cost you something, and that’s a handicap to yourself. Benefits to others those might provide could be a reason for outsiders to be impressed by them, but the main point was more along the lines of doing your push-ups one handed. Cranking out a large number of them is impressive, doing it one handed more so because of the handicap. Living a healthy, successful life is impressive, doing so with the handicap of commitment to some other cause can be more so. War or tithing are arbitrary examples of how it can have that cost, and might have the incidental benefit of helping someone else, but the point is more that it costs you something, enhancing your apparent fitness by having an obvious extra burden. So, religion isn’t cheap, it can cost you your life, or at least your edge, and people like the underdogs.

  17. Anyway, I’m not even convinced by my own argument, I’m thinking out loud until I’ve come to a conclusion. So, maybe that will have some value to someone. Maybe not.

  18. On one of his Bloggingheads discussions Eleizer Yudkowksy made an interesting point about the evolutionary basis for religion.

    For essentially the whole of human existence atheism was a death sentence. With atheists being burned alive for their beliefs for millennia, is it any wonder there was selective pressure for religiosity?

  19. @Outsider: Actually, yes. Education is a great start. Education removes the need to explain natural phenomenon with supposition, superstition, and fantasy. Once a person understands that 95% of everything out there has a natural explanation, I believe they are much more likely to say that the other 5% is simply TBD instead of “God did it”.
    My parents are great Catholics; they brought me up in the Catholic tradition. My friends we Catholic. I also lived in a neighborhood with good schools and excellent science education. Guess which influenced me more.

  20. Many are missing the point of how and why the peacock’s tail is attractive to peahens. It is attractive simply because peahens like it. The reason that peacocks don’t have a tail a mile long is because peacock predators like it too. It makes peacocks easier to catch and eat. A peacock’s tail is sex-linked. Only male peacocks have a long tail. Peahens don’t.

    A peahen who chooses a male with a big tail will have daughters without a big tail (because peahens don’t have big tails) but sons with big tales. The peahen who chooses a male with a big tail will have daughters who choose males with big tails too. If there was a peacock with a tail a mile long, the peahens would be lined up to mate with him. Even though having a tail a mile long would be fatal in the wild.

    The reason there are “bad boys” and “players” is because girls are attracted to them. The girl who believes a “player’s” lies and gets pregnant will have sons who are players and daughters who believe a player’s lies. A woman will know better.

    That is what Bristol Palin learned a little bit too late.

    People (male and female) with “player-type” genes; want every girl to learn that lesson a little bit too late because that is how the “player-types” are “successful” even (or especially) when they are losers.

    If a woman wants to control the kind of guy her daughter will be attracted to; she need to choose the right kind of guy to be her father. As a woman she should choose wisely, because when her daughter is a girl she might not be able to and may end up like Bristol Palin.

  21. Hi all.. I’m late and have nothing to add about peacock’s, to I’ll stick with the most ridiculous one of the ‘Us v. Them’ statements I had the chance to read here during my lunch break.

    “So, it seems like religious people expect unquestioning respect to the point that they will take offense prematurely.”

    Here, let me fix that for you so that it will more accurately reflect reality instead of just your filter. It should say, “So, it seems like people expect unquestioning respect for their position, to the point that they will take offense prematurely.”

    Funny how a persons views can skew something, and somewhat funny given the topic.

  22. @MoltenHotMagma: I get the desire to steer clear of “Us vs Them,” but do you really think that religion doesn’t hold a special place free from criticism in our society? If I were to fix ziztur’s comment, I’d probably go for something more like “it seems like (SOME/MANY) religious people expect unquestioning respect to the point that they will take offense prematurely.”

    I don’t think that people, in general, expect unquestioning respect for their position to the point that they take offense prematurely. For that to happen, it has to be a belief that they feel is some essential part of their lives, something they’ve come to see as crucially important to their own character and the universe around them.

    But the real point, to me, is expanding it beyond an individual level to a societal level. In the US, religion is seen as a special subject that shouldn’t be criticized at all, ever. That’s a problem, particularly because it may play a key role in spreading dangerous irrationality.

  23. @Rebecca: “…but do you really think that religion doesn’t hold a special place free from criticism in our society?”

    Oh good golly gosh no! As a matter of fact, I believe that one of the biggest problems in society today is the movement towards people rejecting anything they don’t like as, “an attack on my Religious freedoms”, or some other silly such. In this, we are in complete agreement.

    Where we disagree is in your statement that, “I don’t think that people, in general, expect unquestioning respect for their position to the point that they take offense prematurely.”

    I disagree with this completely. It expresses itself differently depending on the topic and the people, but whether it is a Mechanical Engineer arguing till he is blue in the face that the problem with the system is Electrical, (it was a mechanical problem by the way. One of the pumps was specced incorrectly), a Democrat convinced that all Republicans must be inbred hicks, someones mother convinced that ‘Airborn’ actually works because Oprah said so, or a Religious Fundamentalist with a false sense of persicution; all of these people fundamentally believe that any question of their position is an assault upon them. My experience is that this is not just common, it’s the rule of behavior for people in general and that’s the point I was trying to make.

    That is also why I like sites like Skepchick and movements like the Skeptical movement. Because it is one of the only environments out there that actively encourages people to get past that and really consider what is being said instead of just leaping to conclusions about it.

    :/ It is also why I think it is even worse than just the failure to criticize religion. I think it effects all aspects of our society and Religion is just one of the most visible. But at it’s core, grade inflation is part of the same problem. Parents don’t want to face the fact that their children aren’t perfect, so we can’t hurt their little minds with actual correction and learning….

    My concern is more than just avoiding an ‘Us v. Them’ problem, (though that is a big part of it because I find it counter-productive), it is missing the real problem entirely because we risk getting caught up in just a single part of it.

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