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Author Topic:   What is religion good for?
nwr
Member
Posts: 5586
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 1 of 40 (252308)
10-17-2005 12:36 AM


This follows up on the suggestion in Message 22.

What is the value of religion, in the sense of its social role within society? And what is the value of religion to an individual?

The question arises from the observation that many different societies have religions. Apparently religions tend to evolve, in the sense of cultural evolution. This suggests that religion brings some sort of value to societies.

Many people are troubled by fundamentalism. In order to better understand it, we would need to know something about what brings people to fundamentalist religions.

This is not a question about any particular religion, although answers might be different for different religions. This is intended as a science topic, not a faith topic, although the scientific issues might mainly concern the social sciences.

Answers such as "to save your soul" are not welcome in this thread. A different thread could be proposed for that if anyone thinks it is appropriate.

I suggest Forum Miscellaneous Topics in Creation/Evolution for this.


Replies to this message:
 Message 2 by AdminNosy, posted 10-17-2005 12:40 AM nwr has responded
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 Message 7 by crashfrog, posted 10-17-2005 5:28 PM nwr has not yet responded

  
AdminNosy
Administrator
Posts: 4754
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Joined: 11-11-2003


Message 2 of 40 (252310)
10-17-2005 12:40 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by nwr
10-17-2005 12:36 AM


The forum???
How does this fit in misc topics in crea/evo?

Isn't it more a "Social Issues and Creation/Evolution" or "Comparitive Religions"?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by nwr, posted 10-17-2005 12:36 AM nwr has responded

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nwr
Member
Posts: 5586
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 3 of 40 (252315)
10-17-2005 1:02 AM
Reply to: Message 2 by AdminNosy
10-17-2005 12:40 AM


Re: The forum???
I will have to leave it to your judgement as to where it should go.

Perhaps Social Issues in Creation/Evolution would be better. My main concern was that this not be discussed as a religious topic.


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AdminNosy
Administrator
Posts: 4754
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Joined: 11-11-2003


Message 4 of 40 (252318)
10-17-2005 1:19 AM


Thread moved here from the Proposed New Topics forum.

  
Primordial Egg
Inactive Member


Message 5 of 40 (252326)
10-17-2005 4:41 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by nwr
10-17-2005 12:36 AM


There was an interesting article on this question (as applied to God, rather than religion) in last week's Guardian over here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1590776,00.html

Written by Professor Robert Winston, who presents Science shows on the BBC.

Basically, the article provides 3 potential reasons (if we ignore the "people happen to believe in God because he happens to exist" reason).

1. Religion (or God) is a memeplex that has taken host in the brains of individuals, much like a virus. One can extend the analogy by talking about Lamarckian processes, competition for resources in Belief-O-Space etc. After all, just because something happens to exist, it does not necessarily imply that it confers some survival advantage, for us. Religions may simply exist because they provide survival advantage for themselves. Dawkins is a big advocate of this approach as is Susan Blakemore.

http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Dawkins/viruses-of-the-mind.html

There's a lot that makes sense to me in this approach.

2. Some anthropologists do take the view that religion had to confer some survival advantage to humans and see religion as existing primarily as a comforting mechanism, which would reduce stress and thus enable individuals to act more effectively. I guess this could be poorly phrased as "its nice to have a sky daddy", but I'm not even going to go there :P

3 there are also social benefits to belonging in a particular (non-familial) club, where individuals would have able to help and defend one another. From the Guardian article:

The communal nature of religion certainly would have given groups of hunter-gatherers a stronger sense of togetherness. This produced a leaner, meaner survival machine, a group that was more likely to be able to defend a waterhole, or kill more antelope, or capture their opponents' daughters. The better the religion was at producing an organised and disciplined group, the more effective they would have been at staying alive, and hence at passing their genes on to the next generation.

I guess another potential reason (not in the article) for the existence of religion is as a control mechanism for tyrannical leaders (or witchdoctors) to subjugate people with, but I'd imagine that religion came before the existence of those claiming a divine right to lead. Maybe not, though.

IMO, why religion existed at all is primarily through reasons 2 & 3. Why it survives to this day is probably 1 & 4.

PE

This message has been edited by Primordial Egg, 10-17-2005 04:43 AM


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Ben!
Member (Idle past 1906 days)
Posts: 1154
From: San Diego, CA
Joined: 10-14-2004


Message 6 of 40 (252415)
10-17-2005 2:21 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by nwr
10-17-2005 12:36 AM


Just to bump and add a little...

I think religion is a nice balance between our ultimately illogical / alogical nature, our seeming need to find cause-effect relationships, and the fact that we work in groups (we're social).

I'm pretty confident the first can be defended with scientific studies (at least, to the degree that the studies can be generalized). I don't have any knowledge (besides anecdotal) to support the second or third thoughts.

Ben


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crashfrog
Inactive Member


Message 7 of 40 (252458)
10-17-2005 5:28 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by nwr
10-17-2005 12:36 AM


What it's not good for
I'll tell you what religion is not good for, according to scientific research: society.

http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

quote:
Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies

A First Look

There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002).


They actually go into considerably more detail than that. Very intersting article that I'm surprised hasn't turned up; it turns the creationist view that "evolution is bad for society" right on its head - its the highly creationist parts of America that are strongly correlated with various societal ills.


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Ben!
Member (Idle past 1906 days)
Posts: 1154
From: San Diego, CA
Joined: 10-14-2004


Message 8 of 40 (252470)
10-17-2005 6:33 PM
Reply to: Message 7 by crashfrog
10-17-2005 5:28 PM


Re: What it's not good for
Interesting... I've only just thumbed through it right now (and I'll definitely go back when I have a moment), but it seems there are grounds to question your conclusions:

  1. Just because religion is a problem now doesn't mean it wasn't a critical part of how we got here. The question remains what the role of religion was in previous times, in previous cultures, and if the role it played was essential.

    An example of this is Japan. Ignoring the role of religion in Japan, the culture is extremely homogeneous. That cultural pressure itself provides coherence. Something in the past provided the view that homogenaity is important; what was it? It very well could have been religion, which played a critical role in Japan's past. Also could have been localist governments and the whole feudal system they had going on there. I don't know. The paper doesn't address it at all. It needs to be investigated before we make sweeping generalizations.

  2. Religion doesn't necessarily have to be playing a role in coherence of a society; but that doesn't mean it doesn't (in untested cultures) or didn't (in previous cultures). You imply that because it's not as good as other methods now, that it doesn't serve any role in coherence of a society. The coherence may be worse (by the measurements in the paper), but it may still be providing coherence.

    That means, in the areas where religion is strong, the article doesn't imply that there's no coherence; it just says that the coherence is worse (by the measurements they give) than other mechanisms of coherence. Your statement seems to imply that religion provides no, or negative coherence. It's not clear from the data; the data also support the hypothesis that religion provides coherence, but the coherence is not as good as other types in today's industrialized world.

  3. Confounding factors--there's too many possibilities to list. I didn't see them address ANY. Do we really think that religious belief doesn't correlate with other important behavioral factors that might invalidate their findings?
  4. its the highly creationist parts of America that are strongly correlated with various societal ills.

    Sad to hear. And definitely an interesting article. But it's still a long way from the generalization you're giving here.


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crashfrog
Inactive Member


Message 9 of 40 (252541)
10-17-2005 10:07 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Ben!
10-17-2005 6:33 PM


Re: What it's not good for
Just because religion is a problem now doesn't mean it wasn't a critical part of how we got here.

Got where?

The human experience doesn't change; not until the fundamental biological constraints of being human change. Technology progresses but so long as we need to eat, sleep, eliminate wastes, and mate for reproduction, being human is the same no matter what. That's why we can appreciate Shakespeare and Beowulf centuries after the societies that produced those stories are gone; that's why stories are never invented, only retold.

If we don't need religion now, then we never needed it. If its a dangerous influence now, it always has been.

Also could have been localist governments and the whole feudal system they had going on there. I don't know. The paper doesn't address it at all.

Historical considerations are beyond the scope of the paper.

Your statement seems to imply that religion provides no, or negative coherence.

Religion serves to divide the world into believers and unbelievers. In that sense, I would describe it as an influence against cohesion, a divisive influence.

Do we really think that religious belief doesn't correlate with other important behavioral factors that might invalidate their findings?

Chicken or egg problem, I guess. Does religion impoverish society, or do impoverished societies turn to religion? Or both? Not within the scope of the paper, as far as I can tell. It simply rebuts the notion that religion is a "civilizing" or enmoraling influence.


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Replies to this message:
 Message 10 by robinrohan, posted 10-18-2005 12:24 AM crashfrog has responded
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robinrohan
Inactive Member


Message 10 of 40 (252558)
10-18-2005 12:24 AM
Reply to: Message 9 by crashfrog
10-17-2005 10:07 PM


Re: What it's not good for
Does religion impoverish society, or do impoverished societies turn to religion? Or both? Not within the scope of the paper, as far as I can tell. It simply rebuts the notion that religion is a "civilizing" or enmoraling influence.

Funny, Crashfrog, if we look at history, how we've been down this road before. Remember the big atheistic, communistic movement? I seem to have some memory of that (well, historical memory).

Isn't it strange how things get all mixed up? But that's what happened in the first half of the 20th century. What a time that was.

But it didn't quite work out, did it?


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Ben!
Member (Idle past 1906 days)
Posts: 1154
From: San Diego, CA
Joined: 10-14-2004


Message 11 of 40 (252564)
10-18-2005 1:04 AM
Reply to: Message 9 by crashfrog
10-17-2005 10:07 PM


Re: What it's not good for
The human experience doesn't change; not until the fundamental biological constraints of being human change.

This is silly. Human experience is dependent on much more than just fundamental biological constraints. Society / culture are huge factors in our behavior and development.

Surely culture changes. Do you think that 18th century Japanese culture has any fundamental differences compared to now? How about compared to 2000 years ago? How about compared to 20,000 years ago?

Do you think religion was a factor for the pilgrims who first came to America? How about 1000 years before that? How about 20,000 years before that?

If we don't need religion now, then we never needed it. If its a dangerous influence now, it always has been.

Culture, Crash. It's all about culture.

Here's another good example of how cultural changes dictate how things may be cohesive or may be divisive: nationalism. Do you think nationalism brought a country together after 9/11? Do you think anything has changed since then? I would suggest that nationalism was a big bonding factor around 9/11, but now is turning into a divisive force. Really fast change.

Culture changes. Needs change. Knowledge changes. The role of religion changes.

Religion serves to divide the world into believers and unbelievers. In that sense, I would describe it as an influence against cohesion, a divisive influence.

Not if everybody's a believer. Not if believers are stronger from their faith and are able to co-exist with non-believers.

Maybe how religion works is dependent on population size of a culture. Paper didn't investigate it, and you're dismissing the possibility without considering it. Maybe religion works really well for tribal-sized cultures. A good place to examine might be in some African nations then. What are the cultural mechanisms used to keep a tribe together as a cohesive unit?

Even if religion provides ceremonies; music; leaders--then as far as these items are providing cohesion, religion is too. People aren't as autonomous as you're wanting to make them out to be.

Ben writes:

Do we really think that religious belief doesn't correlate with other important behavioral factors that might invalidate their findings?

It's a chicken-egg situation only if the correlating factor is causally connected to religious belief. If it's only incidentally related, then it means religion has nothing to do with the correlation.

For example, let's say that test scores (crimes) correlates with skin color (religion). Let's also say that skin color (religion) also correlates with income (unknown factor X). According to you, it's a "chicken-egg" situation between test scores and skin color. What I'm saying is there's a 3rd external cause--income--that relates the skin color (religion) and test scores (crime). Thus, skin color (religion) has nothing to do with test scores (crime); it's an incidental correlation. It's possible to have one without the other.

There's so many things religion could correlate with; simple ones that have no causal connection but rather incidental, such as geographical location. You can't make the conclusions you want to unless you rigorously explore these scenarios.


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nwr
Member
Posts: 5586
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 12 of 40 (252565)
10-18-2005 1:09 AM


I remember when I was very young, my mother used to take me to church with her. Boring -- very boring. Eventually, I protested. My father (who never went to church) said that I had to go, but I could try a different church. So I tried one down the street. It was an evangelical church.

Somehow, I got hooked. I'm not sure why. But it may have been because they had a pretty good youth outreach program. They had a variety of activities for youth (tennis competitions in the summer, basketball in the winter, a variety of interesting local trips, a youth club).

Later, when I went to grad school, I tried a church there. Nobody much paid attention. I was just part of the audience. Maybe that's why I found it easy to stop attending.

So I am thinking that social activities can be part of the attraction. And if a person makes good friends in the religious group, that makes it so much easier to accept the religion.


  
nwr
Member
Posts: 5586
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 13 of 40 (252576)
10-18-2005 1:40 AM
Reply to: Message 9 by crashfrog
10-17-2005 10:07 PM


Re: What it's not good for
If we don't need religion now, then we never needed it. If its a dangerous influence now, it always has been.

I'm inclined to think that's a bit simplistic.

Religion has been part of the glue that binds societies together. Maybe we don't need that today, because we have radio, television, cable, the internet, rapid travel in aircraft, rock music, etc.

It is easy to pick on the downside of religion. Many of the bad points are quite apparent, with the crusades being a particularly bad example. But perhaps there is a good side that hasn't been noticed.

Here is an interesting question for your crashfrog. Why did the industrial revolution happen? A lot of the technological, mathematical and scientific discoveries had been made earlier in other places - China for example. Why did they treat it more as a pastime, and not push it the way western europe did. Was this something peculiar about the British? Or was it christianity? Or was it protestantism?

I think the answers are not known, but there apparently are some strong hints that religion was involved.


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Primordial Egg
Inactive Member


Message 14 of 40 (252592)
10-18-2005 2:45 AM


religion vs xenophobia
Religion, as I would define it, is characterised by ritual and a belief in magic / the supernatural. Whilst its easy to see how social cohesion (good or bad) may have arisen through religious structures, its not apparent to me why the supernatural would be required for it to be cohesive. Saying that religion may have been a useful trait for societal bonding doesn't cut it for me, as surely there are other non-supernatural systems (xenophobia?) which would do the same?

PE

This message has been edited by Primordial Egg, 10-18-2005 02:47 AM


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lfen
Member (Idle past 2961 days)
Posts: 2189
From: Oregon
Joined: 06-24-2004


Message 15 of 40 (252594)
10-18-2005 2:52 AM
Reply to: Message 13 by nwr
10-18-2005 1:40 AM


Re: What it's not good for
Jared Diamond in his book:

Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies
Author: Diamond, Jared M.
Publisher, Date: New York : W.W. Norton, c1997.Edition: 1st ed.

suggests that the geography of Europe which fosteredmany small nations struggling for survival and supremacy resulted in competitive warfare which culminated in a technology race that greatly spurred on science.

China was far more homogenous and less subject to competitive pressures and found equilibrium.

The book is a good read at any rate.

Morris Berman is his book:

Wandering God : a study in nomadic spirituality / Morris Berman. Author: Berman, Morris, 1944-
Publisher, Date: Albany : State University of New York Press, c2000.

explores the notion that religions were necessary to induce large numbers of people to live a cooperative agricultural life and cope with the stresses of living with "strangers" rather than return to natural sized bands.

I found both authors persuasive but I'm not an expert in their fields and can't adequately critique their arguments. I recommend Berman's book as offering a way to look at the problem you've noted.

I think religion served a function and that function remains necessary for the majority of people to this day. Will humanity outgrow it? Will it develop a more "rational" bonding mechanism? I've no idea but would like to think so.

lfen


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