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 â€œhandicap principle,â€ 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 â€” 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?