Is Secularism Maladaptive?

In the paper the other day there was an item about Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to the people of the Czech Republic. The Pope, speaking to one of the most secular societies on Earth, sought earnestly to persuade them of the dangers of a society without God.

On a superficial level this is easy enough to understand; after all, Benedict is the CEO of a huge, multinational business that has been losing market share at an accelerating pace in recent years. We’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing lately: I recall, for example, the CEO of General Motors admonishing Congress not too long ago about the dangers of a society without Chevy Camaros.

But this is a special case, of course: the Catholic Church has been in business even longer than Ford, GM, and Chrysler put together. More than that, though, the Church markets a product that has, for twenty centuries, inspired some of the fiercest brand loyalty in all of merchandising. Which is, really, the point.

Can societies survive without religion? The question is on everybody’s mind, it seems, and it’s a fair one. Bill Vallicella, for example, asked it a few days ago, in a brief and pungent post entitled Can Belief in Man Substitute for Belief in God? I reproduce it here in its entirety:

The fact and extent of natural and moral evil make belief in a providential power difficult. But they also make belief in man and human progress difficult. There is the opium of religion, but also that of future-oriented utopian naturalisms such as Marxism. Why is utopian opium less narcotic than the religious variety?

And isn’t it more difficult to believe in man than in God? We know man and his wretchedness and that nothing much can be expected of him, but we don’t know God and his powers. Man is impotent to ameliorate his condition in any fundamental way. We have had centuries to experience this truth, have we not? Advances in science and technology have brought undeniable benefits but also unprecedented dangers. The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their possession by rogue states and their terrorist surrogates, bodes ill for the future of humanity. As I write these lines, the prime minister of a middle eastern state calls brazenly and repeatedly for the destruction of another middle eastern state while the state of which he is the prime minister prepares the nuclear weapons to carry out the unspeakably evil deed. Meanwhile the rest of the world is complacent and appeasing. We know our ilk and what he is capable of, and the bases of rational optimism seem slim indeed.

There is also the scarcely insignificant point that there is no such thing as Man, there are only individual men, men at war with one another and with themselves. We are divided, divisive, and duplicitous creatures. But God is one. You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn’t and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, and having thrown overboard every moral standard, is ever ready to spill oceans of blood in pursuit of their utopian fantasies.

There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left’s utopian Kool-Aid.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Auster, for whom this is a favorite topic, recently posted at his website a long and articulate email from “Kristor”, one of his readers, making the same point. We’ll get to that one shortly, but in sum the argument is that religion serves at least two vital roles in society. First, it binds the group together into a single community, with shared rituals, beliefs, traditions, and a network of mutual obligations. Second, it provides an absolute, Divine standard upon which moral judgments may rest. Take these away, and a society becomes like a barrel without hoops: bereft of the cohesive force of religion, a community falls apart, and with no absolute moral commandments, anything is possible. Bound no longer to his neighbor by the ties of confession and congregation, it’s every man for himself. Lacking the bonds of religion and any standards for objective judgment, the community drifts, rudderless and unseaworthy, into a careless moral and cultural relativism. The former virtues of loyalty to, and unity with, one’s own people (the very word “community” means “one together”) become parochial atavisms, scorned in favor of a new summum bonum, “diversity”.

How much of this is true?

Before we go any farther, let me get my own cards on the table. First, I am not a theist. Regarding the principal tenets of some of the most popular religions — that there is an onmi-propertied God that created the world, and manages its affairs according to a divine Purpose; that we possess immaterial, immortal souls; that our conscious minds, rather than being the product of our physical brains, are somehow splinters of God’s own consciousness; that our moral intuitions arise from our awareness of absolute and pre-existing principles of good and evil laid down by God; that upon our deaths we will be judged according to the fidelity with which we have fulfilled God’s wishes, and rewarded or punished accordingly; that a lack of belief in all the aforementioned is a ticket to eternal damnation; that, despite the growing evidence of the mechanistic action of the brain and mind, we possess, in some incomprehensible way, a power of “free will” that allows us to be uncaused causal agents; that a man, born of a virgin woman, performed miracles on this Earth, then was tortured to death, resurrected after several days, and ascended bodily into Heaven, and that this person was somehow both God and Man; that God is both One and Three; etc., etc. — I consider all of them dubious, at best. I am a Darwinist. But I am also deeply embedded in the Western culture that I consider to be the high-water mark of our species’s slow ascent from beasthood, and I am concerned for its preservation. I am an unapologetic elitist and no multiculturalist, and I am a conservative, because I think that our Western culture has a great many features, of indisputably superior quality and value, that are well worth conserving.

[Note, June 2017: the near-atheism I expressed here has softened considerably over the past eight years. – MP]

So: is religion necessary for the preservation of Western culture, or, for that matter, any culture at all?

There is a gathering and persuasive academic consensus that our moral architecture is a cognitive adaptation that increases the fitness of social primates. Just as is the case with our built-in facility for the acquisition and use of language, we come factory-equipped with specialized equipment for setting up, and being guided by, an internalized system of moral rules. And as with human languages, details may vary, but only so far; there appear to be moral universals that constrain the possible range of ethical systems in much the same way that all human languages must work within a finite set of possible grammars. The obvious assumption is that outside these ranges these systems simply don’t work as well; that selection prunes the outliers. An inbuilt moral system that urges us all to assume a place in a social network of mutually supportive obligations to one another strengthens the overall fitness of the group, and a group that hangs together as a team in this way will do better, in the struggle for resources, than a rival group that is less cohesive. We may each have to pay a price in terms of within-group fitness, but if the group as a whole does well, its members will too, on average. If my group is fighting your group for access to a marginal food supply, and we are able to work better as a team that your side can, my group will live, and yours will die.

A simliar case is now being made, at the level of cultural adaptation, for religion. Religions are complexes of memes that, once they have transformed the minds they occupy, can strongly reinforce the cohesion of human groups. The best ones are phenomenally successful not only at propagating themselves — they can leap from host mind to host mind as effectively as the most contagious viruses — but also at conferring significant advantages in terms of group cohesion, and fidelity to the group’s particular moral grammar. A human society that plays host to an elite, highly evolved religion, then, reaps an enormous benefit in terms of group-level fitness.

But even the most effective religions, despite their magnificent defenses, can nevertheless be vulnerable in memetic “arms races” that may give rise to sophisticated threats. Such a threat is the secular, scientific worldview that has arisen in the West over the past several hundred years, but which ultimately has its roots in the habit of unfettered skeptical inquiry that arose in the early flowering of Greece. It too, has conferred powerful benefits upon its hosts — particularly as regards our increasing power over the natural world, the result of which has been, for Western civilization, both immense wealth and dominant military superiority.

But the same process of rational inquiry that got us here does not stop at technology; it was inevitable that we would turn this mighty investigative engine upon ourselves and our origins, and would begin to examine with the same persistent curiosity the very moral and religious scaffolding upon which our culture itself was erected. Under this relentless scrutiny these memetic pillars have been found to rest on less supportive ground than we might have liked: in the case of religion, the foundation was seen by many to be little more than deference to authority, tradition, and “sacred” texts. Our moral intuitions, in turn, having lost their external buttress in God, have more recently come to be understood as fitness-enhancing evolutionary adaptations.

This is unquestionably corrosive; it is far from clear that a secular culture, having renounced the adaptive advantages religion once provided, can continue to compete successfully with cultures in which religious unity is strong. Although prominent secularist philosophers and evolutionary psychologists have tried hard to replace the binding and morally bracing effect of religious memes with various substitutes, it is hard to conceal the fact that religion does spread a veil across a nihilistic abyss that can become all too uncomfortably visible to any atheist who thinks too much about these things.

There have been some good attempts to shore up these foundations in religion’s absence, and our more prominent secularists have, when pressed, called them into service. In Cape Cod this summer I had the opportunity to meet Steven Pinker, and during a very brief chat pressed him about this. Does he find it difficult, I asked, to place all of our moral “oughts” on any sort of solid ground, when they are revealed, it seems, to be not intrinsically good in any way, but merely adaptive?

Dr. Pinker replied that in his view the best foundation for our morality may be found in the symmetry-based moral philosophies of people like Immanuel Kant and John Rawls: the idea, in essence, that an optimal moral system is one that a person would choose if he did not know in advance what his position in the system would be. This is maximally egalitarian from an objective viewpoint, and has the advantage also of beng in nice correspondence with our central moral intuitions of altruism and fairness, as summed up in the Golden Rule — which in turn are presumably the result, in the modern view, of adaptation through natural selection.

[Note, March 2015: Even Rawlsian solutions have their problems, though, as I’ve noted elsewhere. – MP]

If we continue to drill relentlessly downward, however, left unanswered is the question of why it is in any way intrinsically good to maximize fairness, or to adopt symmetrical moral systems. This is inevitable, as we are still in the impossible position of wanting an “ought” from Nature’s “is”. It can’t be done, and smart people know it — and like it or not, such knowledge can be, as I said above, corrosive. This is why Daniel Dennett called Darwin’s great insight a “dangerous idea”. It is.

Since I began writing this post a couple of days ago, another item has appeared about the Pope’s visit to the Czechs. We read:

…Czechs said his mission here had been futile. “Catholicism is not going to catch on here where cynicism and ‘What’s the point?’ are the national ideology,” said Dominik Jun, 31, a filmmaker. “More Czechs believe in infomercials on television than they do in religion.”

What’s the point, indeed? A society that can’t answer that question is not well-suited to fight for its survival. And if we look at modern, secular European culture, it is not fighting at all: morale is low, and birth rates are falling; the hoops have come off the barrel. Meanwhile, immigrants to Europe who are strongly bound by one of the most successful religious meme-complexes of all time — Islam — are very motivated indeed, and their numbers and influence are swelling across the Continent. It is hard not to see this as natural selection in action, at a cultural level if nothing else. As Cornelius Troost said in his book Apes or Angels? : “Passive unbelievers with one child are no match for fanatical believers who have three or four.” It is beginning to appear that the memes that have propelled Western secular society to its moment in the sun will next, in the natural course of events, propel it right over a cliff.

So: what is to be done? In the Lawrence Auster post that I mentioned earlier, his reader Kristor wrote (the context here is the intellectual movement known as “human biodiversity”, or HBD, but the point is the same:

The really sad aspect of this situation is that the HBD analysis is really compelling. Evolutionary psychology supports the idea that societies really will do better if they are run on traditional lines. But, being couched in Darwinian terms, evolutionary psychology lacks any compelling argument that societies should do better. Indeed, Darwinist, materialist HBD’ers must forswear any such argument as unfounded and wrongheaded. What Darwinian HBD lacks is an argument that life is really good–good in fact–and that the things humans find most precious are in fact really important in the ultimate scheme of things, and therefore ought to be pursued. Instead, the Darwinian HBD’er is reduced to saying, “This is how things work, but that doesn’t matter.” This makes HBD pointless, a waste of time.

HBD can come to its full flower, as a school of intellectual endeavor, only when it admits as a first principle that there exists an ultimate moral framework under which it is better to exist than not, better to be comprehensive than inadequate, better to be more aware than less aware, and so forth. Only if these and certain other moral precepts are absolutely true, can evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or HBD–or, for that matter, any domain of inquiry whatsoever–be of any help. But this admission would require the abandonment of Darwinism–of the proposition that change is essentially random–and of materialism.

In fact, it would require theism.

The point being made here is that a conservative, if he is to have any realistic hope of actually conserving Western culture, must accept and encourage theism; that only religion can give a culture the sinews it needs to prevail. In the Darwinian struggle for survival, secular cultures may enjoy an early advantage over religious ones, but in the long run they lose. In other words, secularism reduces a group’s fitness. In Darwinian terms, secularism is unilateral disarmament.

Is this true? I’m afraid it very well may be. Will I then advocate belief in ideas that I consider to be false? No. If the truth is that religion’s claims are false, we are simply never going to get the genie back into the bottle, and I wouldn’t want to even if we could: for me, as a representative product of the Western Enlightenment, the pursuit of truth itself is the greatest good.

[Note, January 2015: My position on this question of advocacy, and on the long-term effect of the radical skepsis that the Enlightenment set in motion, are no longer what they were when I wrote this post. — MP]

A lively discussion of all this is underway over at Mangan’s, where Dennis wrote, in response to Auster’s post:

As to the problem of morality, this is another one of those topics which have filled many yards of library bookshelves, so I’ll be brief. Kristor says that, according to Darwinism, “our feeling of wrongness, inherited from our evolutionary past, is just all there is to morality.” In a sense I agree that morality has been “inherited from our evolutionary past”, but not in some simple genetic way. Moral codes must be taught to each generation, and in turn no society can exist without a moral code.

More to our purpose, how does a moral code or lack thereof affect our ability or willingness to defend ourselves? Kristor seems to believe that, unless we view the West or America as the best or as righteous in some kind of cosmic sense, then we have no reasonable basis on which to defend it. Perhaps the idea is that, if we do not possess such a sense of righteousness, we will fall prey to white guilt, or maybe the idea is that if we will feel enervated in the knowledge that our society isn’t the best and will thus not put forth our best efforts in defending it. This is mistaken.

Societies, cultures, or civilizations have no need to feel that they are the best or the most righteous in order to feel that what they have is worth preserving, any more than families need to feel that they are the best or most righteous to defend themselves. They defend themselves because they are their own. Kristor states that “under a Darwinian world view, nothing is a problem”; the question is, a problem for whom? In some sort of cosmic sense, my death is not a problem, the world will quite happily go on its way without me. But it is indeed a problem for me, and I take whatever steps necessary to postpone my death. Similarly, it’s not a problem in some kind of cosmic sense that the West should die – although the world will undoubtedly not be better off for it, it will nevertheless go on its way, just as it did when the Roman Empire died, and the cosmos simply will not care. It will be, however, a big problem for us. So just as I’m able to see my own death as unimportant in the grand scheme of things but very important personally, so the West can look at its own civilization.

Correct. That our instincts for morality, and the particular configurations they assume, are not rooted in Divine command, does not mean that they are empty shells, or that we can ignore them any more than we can ignore our adaptive enjoyment of sex or food. Yes, religion may provide an enormously effective memetic reinforcement of these social instincts, but it is clear that we unbelievers can still behave just as well as the theists do, even without religion’s bridle and spur. And although the atheistic totalitarianisms of the twentieth century are often hauled into the dock by the religious as proxies for all us infidels (unfairly so, for reasons I won’t discuss here), it is also obvious that examples of wicked believers abound. Religion is not the source of morality, it merely gives it a robust post facto codification, and the illusion of supernatural authority at the whim of an imaginary God.

Commenter “Outland” added:

If you’d argue that well-behaved, smart ethnic Europeans should increase their fertility, instead of going the way of the Dodo, I doubt anybody would disagree. There are a few German studies that give proof that most women would have wanted more children. It’s the culture, taxes, career and child-unfriendly environment that made this impossible. There are ways to change that, Sweden and France prove that. Let’s adapt to the post-demographic transition world instead of reverting to our premodern past. Why would I want my people and culture to imitate the ways of Muslims or Africans? Now, that would be Darwinian nihilism! Don’t get me wrong, Muslims and Africans should be free to do so, but it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. By all means, let us find ways to increase fertility and cultivate family life, but let us not get stuck with monotheism again; been there, done that.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe once wrote that classical liberals can never state their case succesfully, because their system lost out in the battle of ideas. He meant that their case wasn’t ideologically consistent, because, and this can’t be denied, they lost out. If it had been a truly superior system, it would have stayed with us — instead of a distant memory, which is what is today, like monarchism. I believe the same thing holds for Christianity. It held its own for many, many centuries, millennia even, but the fact of the matter is, that it did get displaced by modern liberalism/ egalitarianism/ managerial state.

This isn’t a Christian or monotheist thing, all religions eventually fade away. Sooner or later, sometimes millennia, rationality will defeat spirituality. Christianity, if anything, actually did a good job compared to other religions.

We shouldn’t try to find a new religion to replace the old, we should to find non-religious ways to express our in-born religiosity.

Can it be done? We are going to have to find out.

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  1. Very interesting. My immediate response to some of this is that religions can be very maladaptive as well. Islam when it is in its extreme Islamist form is a case in point. It would not be able to survive without the very thing that it wants to exterminate, a free-thinking society, for it is parasitic upon that. Christianity at its best maintained a rough balance between the religious and the secular that made for the optimum from both worlds: religious unity and secular individuality. Islam doesn’t clearly allow for such a balance, hence its Islamist problem.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    “…it is far from clear that a secular culture, having renounced the adaptive advantages religion once provided, can continue to compete successfully with cultures in which religious unity is strong.”

    I’m reminded of Keith Burgess-Jackson, a politically conservative atheist philosopher who nevertheless holds religion in high regard, mainly for the social cohesion it brings.

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeffery,

    Radical Islam may be parasitic upon modern society, but that’s only because it must be to compete effectively. Their model did, after all, work effectively long ago, and if they could restore the right conditions now — either by sufficient isolation or successful global jihad — I’m sure they imagine it could again.

    Certainly some religions are profoundly maladaptive: the Shakers, for example, were all celibate — and now there are no more Shakers.

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Yes, Kevin, Burgess-Jackson may be right in a pragmatic sense, but his position obliges unbelievers to live a difficult double life. I’d like to think we can learn to survive with the truth.

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  5. Did radical Islam ever work except parasitically? It seems to require a more productive society as its tax base, from which it appropriates wealth, yet it applies long-term pressure on that society to submit to Islam.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    In modern times, perhaps not. But what is radical now is “radical” only in the modern context, no? Are you saying that Islam has been parasitic throughout its history?

    Posted October 1, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  7. I know too little about Islam’s history to assert that, but I do wonder.

    Islam ruled an empire and gained a great deal thereby, but that empire was for a time multicultural. My impression is that as Islamic beliefs took hold, fundamentalistic views grew dominant because there was no legitimate secular realm for independent thought to survive. Everything had to conform to Islam, or such is my impression, which may be wrong.

    But some difference is needed to account for the way in which the Islamic world began to lag behind the Christian one despite having conquered so much prime intellectual territory, and my bet is on the division between the religious and the secular, which Islam lacks but Christianity possesses.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 2, 2009 at 2:14 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    I think that last is exactly right, but there were other factors as well, in particular Muslim skepticism that anything arising outside Islam – infidel technology for example – could possibly be worth learning and adopting.

    Posted October 2, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  9. Kagehi says

    First off.. Secularism doesn’t remove all other stupid things from a society, and, unfortunately, most of the ones that have attempted to **force** change on people via law, rather than argument, have done so on Utopian ideals that have no more basis in an understanding of human nature than much of religion has (the later spending much time denying, or telling people to deny such things, for their well being). There are flaws in any system that attempts to declare absolutes, when those absolutes are based not on empirical knowledge, but on just so stories, this includes those that attempt to marry some form of communism/socialism/libertarianism with secularism. The failures are almost universally in the “ism” being married to disbelief, since, by definition, secularism is **supposed to be** about rejecting other “ism”s, and using what works, not embracing any random ideology that comes along, and using it to replace religion.

    As for your assertion, made on the thread I got to here from, and which led me to here, about religion being an evolved thing. You need some evidence to back that it evolved itself, and isn’t, as our knowledge of how the human mind works, merely a side effect of the necessity of being able to a) come up with apparent cause and effect relationships, with the side effect of some of them not being real ones, and b) a high level of adaptability, which allows us to shift perspectives to “fit” is a wider range of situations, including purely imaginary ones (which allow us to ask questions like, “What would happen if I did X”, which is **not** a common trait in other species, most of which can’t even fully comprehend true causation, never mind make up theoretical situations and act on them).

    We can’t see green and red at the same time.

    We can’t hear two tone of the same volume, at the same time.

    We can’t taste salt and bitter well at the same time, which is why you use the former to cancel the later, instead of sugar.

    We have blind spots in our eyes, which prevent us observing some things.

    We have left over “adaptations” like the appendix, which may play some small role in *rare* cases when we need to replenish microorganisms in our intestines, but which ***didn’t do that*** in prior animals.

    Our own brain often function to generate multiple ideas at once, then filter them out, even beginning to act on them **before** the final filters snap into place and tell us **why** we are doing them. And, some people have faulty filters, which can result in everything from relatively minor inability to control some actions, to hearing “voices”, to literally having multiple personalities, in rare, and extreme cases.

    Not everything our bodies and brains do is a) positively adaptive, b) serves a useful purpose, or c) is by any margin optimal. Religions provide 1) answers to questions, for people that can’t or won’t look, or don’t like the ones they find, 2) collective direction, even when that direction goes seriously wrong, and 3) a convenient catch all for weird stuff their minds come up with, for which they feel they *need* an explanation for, and don’t have other means to find. Many of us have the habit, even with our kids, of being afraid to say, “I don’t know.”, so we make up answers, or give them cheap ones, like, “just because, now, go play with your cars”. Some people even make things up, then really never get around, themselves, to actually providing another answer (so its left to a school, or someone else, to give them a better one). I would argue that its not “religion” that is adaptive, but community, and looking to authorities, to give us answers, when we can’t find them ourselves. We all seek this, we all ask questions, we all expect answers, and, when children, most of us are willing to accept *any* answer that is a) believed by those around us and b) seems plausible. If you belong to a religion, everyone either does, or pretends to, or is afraid of challenging, what “everyone else believes”. Heck.. its the #1 argument used by nearly every believer you might ever meet, “Well, look at all the people that believe, and have believed it!”, while failing to question how many did, whether what they consider belief is really what all those other people do, and how many of them may be giving the answer, purely because, “everyone else believes it”. And, if everyone else does, or appears to, believe something, that **implies** plausibility of what ever answer is given by that authority.

    I doubt you will find this is any different in *any* system of belief, religious or otherwise. In fact, I have observed it quite often in political philosophies, where even the people that admit there is a flaw in some idea will go on to defend a slightly different, but essentially the same, other idea, using talking points that are just as unquestioned, authoritative, and, “Its plausible because everyone in the Y party says it all the time.”, style thinking.

    If religion is “adaptive” its not because religion itself has had value, but that its built on the same basic underpinnings that all unquestioned “group” philosophies are, shares the same framework for its defenses, and nearly ****everything**** from playground groups that form around common goals/ideas/beliefs, to political organizations, and even the following of different sports teams are all ‘religions’, based on the same adaptations. They certainly show many of the same traits, in many cases.

    In any case, before one starts making such assertions, either about the “maladaptive” nature of secular systems, or the “adaptive” nature of religions, one first has to come up with a valid criteria by which one can be judges as actually different from the other, both when applied adaptively, and maladaptively. Merely asserting that they are not the same, and pointing out a lot of cases where clashing ideologies have mucked with secularism, as an example of a difference… Well, one of the first rules of making scientific observations is that you must, “remove as many variables as you can *first*.” I would argue, to use an analogy, that you remove none of them (including a great many that mess up the best intent of many religious groups as well), then argue that that water in the well is polluted, not because people keep dumping things they shouldn’t into the well, but because the well was dug the wrong way, or the wrong place. Without excluding 500 other variables, you can’t even logically test your central premise.

    Mind, it also is only supported by a few misread/understood research programs (by the people reporting on the original papers that talk about the subject), *and* contradicted by more than a few others. Sadly, among “science reporters”, its nearly a national past time to get basic details of research they report on wrong, and then bury the correction in a side bar, on some page no one else will ever read (and certainly not the 10,000 people now reporting, that someone some place may have found part of the brain adapted to religion, rather than, “things that, like religion, involve social systems, and shared beliefs”).

    Posted March 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Kagehi, thanks for your comment, though I would ask you to try to be more pithy.

    The point is not that this or that “religion is adaptive”, but that the disposition to form cohesive communal bonds around shared beliefs is (and the more immune those beliefs are to practical disconfirmation the better, with supernatural beliefs being particularly apt).

    Secularists like the Brights often talk hopefully of the possibility of non-theistic organizations that serve the same role as churches — and the religious impulse can also be co-opted by secular ideologies, as the sanguinary history of the 20th century will testify.

    But real, “honest-to-God religion” — with belief in an actually existing God or gods, and a metaphysical scope that extends into the supernatural — is particularly well-suited to this organizing role, and it seems clear enough, I think, that, a cognitive knack for participating in such belief-systems can be plausibly argued to confer a selective advantage.

    Posted March 20, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Kagehi says

    Up to a point, this may certainly be true. History, however, isn’t exactly absent cases where civilizations, and even entire people’s, went extinct, precisely **because of** such adherence to a single religious ideal. This has become less and less of a case over time, but it has, I would argue, been due to such groups adopting “some” secular principles, out of necessity, larger groups (with fairly vague criteria to allow them to class other groups as in the same one as them, even when they are nothing of the sort), and the general tendency of most religious groups to either have 95% of the power, such as in the middle east, or to be so wishy washy about definitions, that they imagine they have 95% of the power. In short, some, like Christians, have simply tacked on two more fictions, that, “all Christians are alike”, and, “we are a mojority”. Some go a step farther, and tack on, “All gods are the same anyway.” None of these are true, but they create a cohesion that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

    Still, Rome did rather well, by simply borrowing every religion that came across its doorstep. Its fall only happened *after* they started to replace polytheism with monotheism, overextended its resources, and its national past times became apathy, and blaming each other for why things where bad. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you need belief in supernatural things, gods, etc. to engender such principles. Nor is it reasonable to claim even that such things “last longer”. Christianity today, and I mean ***none of it*** is any more like Christianity in the first 50-100 years it existed than medicine is, when compared to medieval medicine. That both use the same label means almost nothing. That evangelical literalists use the same label as liberal universalists, is meaningless. The former are losing, hugely, precisely because, despite the desire to be part of a group, what they offer is so far off the road, with respect to everything from their own understanding of history, to science, and just about everything else, that only someone buried in it, but unwilling, or afraid, to ask questions, believes in it.

    Point being, you would likely find similar cohesion among Star Trek fans, and a similar disparity between those obsessed with the original series, but who don’t like most of the newer ones (while both still talking about the “core” principles the shows talked about). What is needed is a solid set of principles. What has hamstrung secular systems, so far, is that they try to both cater to religions, which often turns around and ignores, or undermines any attempt define principles. That and.. the people that car about it the most tend to be free thinkers, and while the concept of “sheep” is often far too appropriate for some believers, the best description one can apply to most humanists/atheists/etc. is “herding cats”. That has been one of the whole points of the Brights movement (despite the idiot name), to come up with a comprehensible idea about what those principles are, so that they can be codified, not just argued over, endlessly, without anyone stating any.

    You might as well be be some guy trying to argue to the inventors of the first computer that, “Its all well and good that this guy Babbage, and that other guy Turing, thought these things where possible, but no one has ever made one that works, now have they!” Of course not. Knowing the general direction to go in is one thing, building it is another. And, frankly, despite the fact that much of the modern concept of secular thinking has been around since Aristotle, and Plato, both of which, in ignorance of what we know now, got basic things about morals, and where they come from, wrong, two men and the pigeon they shared their lunch with, have never been enough to create a movement. Worse, those that have didn’t do it for “secularism”, or even “atheism”, or anything of the sort. They all tried to shackle Utopian gibberish to the concept, then everyone else (mostly the believers) all tried to lay the blame, not of the 50 other flawed ideas, but on the lack of supernatural things in public discourse. As though you can blame, for example, failing to recognize that people won’t work **purely** for other people, without seeing, at least the suggestion, that they gained from it, so “sharing wealth equally” is a non-started, right from word one. Even the religious, whose own religions are, if read literally, practically marked with a hammer and sickle, reject the idea that you should help other people *purely* to help them. They need some sort of “prize”, like an after life, to get them to do it.

    Problem, of course, is the same prize can get them to do something horrible to other people too, using the same logic.

    But, the *main* problem I have with the idea that secularism is flawed, but religion isn’t/no more so, is simply that… people **do** leave it, they do continue to do things that help others, and they manage to derive from doing so the same, if not more, satisfaction that doing it because religion says they must. Same with much of the rest that religion supposedly provides. This implies that religion isn’t **necessary** to create such cohesion. And.. If you know that there are 20 things that can cause you to get cancer, its damn stupid to argue, “We should keep this **one** thing around, because a lot of people won’t give it up, and, more to the point, anti-cancer research is a bad idea, because its never found an actual cure for any of them.” Well, except that, in the case of cancer, we might not need to worry about certain types of melanoma any more, if the Brits are right about one thing they are testing, and we can “prevent” at least one other kind, using a vaccine.

    There is a vaccine for faith too. Too few people get it from good practitioners, lots of religious people don’t want you to take it, and even actively try to undermine its reception, legislate fake alternatives, and claim that choosing to receive it will lead you to all sorts of sinful choices in the future. Also, some of those that do receive it, for some reason, get the disease anyway. We don’t stop trying to teach people, any more than we stop trying to cure cancer. Both are at a crossroads, with real cures/preventions showing up, lots of people annoyed that we *do* have ways to cure/prevent it, for various silly reasons, and increasing numbers of people willing to question *why* they bother with the morons that are trying to stop it, or their religions.

    On the contrary, I think the evidence suggests not that secularism is flawed, but that a) more and more people are abandoning the false hope of religions, every year, in the developed world (but only where they are allowed to choose, not where they are forced to), and b) there is a fundamental incompatibility between what “needs” to be done, and what dogma demands, and most of the failures you see are a result of one trying to steamroll the other. Just look at the sides lined up in the current US health care debate…

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Again, your comments here are interesting, Kahegi, but it would be helpful if they weren’t so long and turbid.

    Agreed that the adaptive value of religiosity is in the cohesive effect and not the specific content. But modern-day secularism, as it exists currently in the West, is too radically skeptical, I think, to offer the same social binding and motivation for action as belief systems that are built upon unfalsifiable supernatural assertions. As I said in the thread that brought you here:

    The radical skepticism of secular, Darwinian philosophy is [to use Dennett’s term] a “universal acid” that tends to dissolve away ancient ethical and metaphysical absolutes. This fosters a culture of doubt; a community pacified and etiolated by a hesitancy to judge, and therefore to act. Strongly religious groups, on the other hand, are largely untroubled by such doubt (and the radical introspection it leads to), and enjoy the robustly bracing effect of a steady confidence that they are guided and favored by God.

    The secular elites of Europe are breeding at sub-replacement levels, while deeply religious immigrants are producing enormous numbers of offspring (if I recall correctly, Muslims immigrants in Europe average seven children per woman). Whatever the theoretical possibilities may be for powerful social cohesion (and robust population growth) on secular foundations (and as an atheist myself I’m certainly hoping for something like this to emerge), it doesn’t seem to be happening: secularism (along with dogmatic multiculturalism) seems to have an atomizing, rather than binding, effect. This does not augur well for the survival of high European civilization.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  13. Kagehi says

    As I said, there are *numerous* reasons for Europe not producing as many children as before, and its not reasonable to lay it at the feet of secularism, just because religion has become and increasingly minor party in such systems (most of which have been generally secular, but also religious, for far longer than the problem you talk about). Nearly all developed worlds see such a decline, religious or otherwise. You are, as I said, ignoring a myriad of other factors, not the least being that, even among the religious in the US, which is so non-secular that you are still nearly more likely to get lynched in some places, than hired, if they realize you have the wrong religion, or don’t believe at all, there is a recognition that children cost money, and its possible to damage the environment via over population.

    You know what is a common theme among those religions who **believe in** expanding their numbers constantly? Three things seem to always come up:

    1. Children are important, especially lots of them, but we often don’t give a shit, once born, if they are poor, starving, lame, disabled, or on food stamps.

    2. In contradiction to the end of the prior statement – if you are poor, its because you are either there for other religious people to languish charity on, or you are just to lazy to become rich, like the rest of us.

    3. Its ***impossible*** for humans to damage the environment, at all, and any cases where they seem to is just liberal whining, or lazy people not working hard enough to plant food for themselves, or find a job.

    This is there cohesion. Having a collective group that will give one of their own a job, and help them get, if not rich, then at least better off than everyone else, but is just as tribal, blind, unjust, and disinterested in what is really happening in the other “tribe” as any Old Testament tribe, who imagine themselves are the ones who must spread the true word to all the others.

    The people you claim are better off, because they breed more, won’t help humans survive better than secularists, they will just drive us to extinction in a different way, and possibly **faster**, out of failure to possess the very thing you claim secularists have too much of – a willingness to be skeptical.

    Oh, and.. just to be clear, a lot of the problem in Europe isn’t just that they don’t have time, money, resources, or a blind willingness to ignore consequence, leading to them not having children. The other problem is the Idiocracy syndrome. When smart, well educated people don’t have enough kids, the people that do are instead *precisely* the ignorant, willfully self centered (while insisting they are not because they give to charities..), and unskeptical people.

    Yet, even thought this is the case, they are still losing, because the consequences of reality always **trump** dogmatic BS, and even their kids, if they bother actually letting them get real educations, recognize it.

    Put simply, I reject the world you seem to imply is somehow “better”, because their are more ignorant, unquestioning, fools in it.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  14. Kagehi says

    I also reject the world that makes spell checkers too stupid to look at context, and tell you when, when you are typing fast, you keep substituting the wrong words in some places, but that is another matter. Sigh… lol

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says


    Nowhere have I expressed any sentiment that groups that exhibit fecund religiosity are “better” in any sense other than pure Darwinian fitness, i.e. differential reproductive success.

    What I do lament is that advanced, secular Western civilization seems to be losing the demographic struggle, and very rapidly so.

    My point is only that secularism appears to contribute to a disadvantage, on a purely Darwinian level, when it comes to between-group competition — and that religion, by contrast, apparently provides a strong, and advantageous, foundation for cohesion. Whether this leads to a “better” world is completely beside the point, and as an atheist myself I am certainly not doing any religious proseletyzing here, nor am I applauding the fecundity of religious communities. Indeed I think the world would benefit enormously from a massive reduction of the human population.

    As for “Idiocracy”: it appears generally to be the case that in any advanced civilization, there is an inverse correlation between relative superiority (measured however you like: intelligence, level of education, social status, economic status, etc.) and fecundity.

    But that’s far beyond the scope of this post.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  16. Kagehi says

    Well, that is kind of my point. You can breed yourself to extinction too. This happens **a lot** in cases where you remove a predator from an environment, so the pressure that is normally there to reduce populations is gone, and the only pressure left at that point is “resources”. Usually, at some point, the numbers stabilize again, but much *smaller* in number than prior. We are not removing one in this case, you are introducing one. Social responsibility, environmental responsibility, questions about the value of wasting your life doing nothing but trying to keep your kids fed. In the short term, we may be out-competed by the group that doesn’t believe in these predators, and can’t see, despite the blindingly obvious examples of many places in Africa, what the consequence is of “not” paying attention to them, and so, they continue on as before. This is lethal. Such blind ignorance is not economically stable, its not environmentally stable, and, I would argue, its not **socially** stable either. Tribal thinking doesn’t extend much beyond about 100-150 people. Everyone past that is either neutral, enemy, or “like us, so automatically worthy of trust”, with no fine distinctions even being possible. This is why, despite the ability of the religious to lump, in most cases, everyone wearing the right symbol into the “like us” category, there are hundreds of thousands of contradictory “tribes” they all belong to. And, when some of those tribes decide they don’t like the opinions of other tribes, battle lines get drawn, some of the others “like us” get shifted into “neutral”, or, “obviously our allies”, and everyone else gets dumped into the “enemy” camp. We have spent 200+ years **trying** to get people to see, “us” as collectively everyone, and “them” only as those trying to undermine our civilization. The problem is, religions have spent the same 200+ years claiming that “us” is only “us” if they wear a cross, or follow the right vague political philosophy.

    Personally, I think that, at least part of the issue, is simply that the secular sort are horrified at the ignorance of the ones that do out breed us, so we hardly want to emulate anything they do. Breeding too much is a losing strategy, and when combined with political interference, superstition, and ignorance, short of curing AIDS, large parts of Africa are likely to go completely extinct, *despite* greater fecundity, because of it. Same happened, to an extent in medieval Europe during the plague. Ignorance, combined with large families, on one hand meant that more survivors where possible, but it also meant **more dead**. Most societies that have large families are unjust, borderline hell holes, where large populations are needed to “replace” people that die, for damn stupid reasons. The **only** exception to this rules is, ironically, people that still hold to the idea of being overly fecund, while **living** in the secular societies that provide them a means to survive, even though they stress the system while doing it. And, as I suggested, and someone else pointed out today in another blog post, its these same people that often actively undermine/dislike the very systems that make it **possible** to raise 12 children in a society where doing so is damn near impossible, due to economics, individual resources, time, etc. Its precisely why only those with more religion that common sense “are” still doing it.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Most societies that have large families are unjust, borderline hell holes, where large populations are needed to “replace” people that die, for damn stupid reasons. The **only** exception to this rules is, ironically, people that still hold to the idea of being overly fecund, while **living** in the secular societies that provide them a means to survive, even though they stress the system while doing it.

    Which is why dogmatic multiculturalism, welfare-statism, and mass immigration are a recipe for cultural suicide.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  18. Kagehi says

    Sorry.. But, no. Immigrants have, unless they come from **nearby** nations, which have drastically different economic conditions, have always been among the best and brightest that have come to the US. The problem isn’t immigration, its blind immigration, which either doesn’t actively seek the best. As for multiculturalism, that isn’t a damn problem either, unless you allow some idiot to push mythologies about the culture, thereby undermining the system. It is somewhat of a problem when they refuse to “melt”, and try to, instead, reject the very place they moved to, despite moving there because it was better. As for welfare statism… Don’t even get me started on this. There are great successes, and huge failures, in Europe in trying to provide for the welfare of everyone. The US is a ***massive*** failure. Why? Because one side of the fence recognizes that we *must* help the weakest in society, if society is to function, and the other side doesn’t want to spend one damn dime to help those people learn, find jobs, or otherwise get **off** the welfare system. This creates one in which, once you are on it, its virtually impossible to leave again. You won’t get any real help learning new skills, that would cost more money, finding jobs? that is **your** job, not the state’s, never mind that, if you could do it, you wouldn’t need the damn state to help, and, the whole system is stacked in such a way that if you ever fall through the holes, you don’t even “count” any more. Like the case of unemployment, where the statistics are taken from people, “receiving money, and looking for work”, this doesn’t include those that no longer qualify, including a mess of them that lost their unemployment insurance because some ass held up the emergency funding for it recently in congress, over some other BS issue he had with another bill.

    What is cultural suicide is assuming that no one has anything to contribute, unless they are like you, that no standards need be applied to who does get let in, and that, once there, you flush more than 10% of your population into a sewer they can’t work, fight, beg, or find help, to **get back out of**. Welfare isn’t the damn problem, its the fact that we treat people in bloody prisons with more respect, give them more training, better access to information, better health care, and generally better food, than we are **willing** to provide to someone that lost their job, fell into the welfare system, and doesn’t have the money to learn anything else, the time to do so, or any hope of getting another job. And, that is without even mentioning the number of people that **have** jobs, and are still receiving some sort of welfare, because the only way they can afford to feed their kids is either by working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, at 2-3 jobs, none of which pay anything, or taking food stamps.

    We are failing our own people, and its not because the secular system has failed, its because everyone trying to fix it is constantly being screwed over by people that, on one hand, give half their money to some socialist church charity, but would rather beat up some guy in a wheel chair, who says, “I can’t pay my bills, or find work.”, than fracking provide him any kind of social services (including the ones that some of the people beating him up **get**).

    You can’t run a system, if half the people in it are derailing, undermining, underfunding, or arguing against the things needed for it to work, and a lot of idiots with the purse strings are listening to them. Its that simple. The places in Europe these things “where” working… some are not failing, because more “conservative” people got into power, and started mangling the system. Some still are working fairly well. Others failed miserably, and for the same reason nothing bloody works in the US either. Too many cooks with their fingers in the damn soup, and half of them insisting that, “No, its supposed to be my new church steeple/car/yacht/etc. If they want soup, make them make it themselves!”

    You can’t pull hundreds of thousands of people up from the damn mud, if half the people with you are pushing them back in and saying, “They can get themselves out, if they don’t like it in there.”, while standing there without a spot of mud on them an a snide expression on their faces.

    There is a right and a wrong way to do these things. For the most part, we have, out of infighting and blind stupidity, taken the path of not really doing anything at all, because everything we do right, some other idiot bypasses, defangs, mangles beyond recognition, and/or convinces the masses is broken so bad that fixing it would waste money, not solve the problem. And, half the idiots doing this “get” more money, free training, free health care, free internet, free libraries, free transportation, etc., than ***anyone else*** will ever see in their damn life time, especially the so called “welfare” cheats.

    This is madness, and has jack to do with real welfare, multiculturalism, or fracking immigration, none of which would *be* a problem, if people let us fix the damn gaping holes in everything without making more, bigger, holes all the time, none of them based on “secular” thinking, but on individual political dogmas.

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Mass immigration, which of course is “blind immigration, which either [sic] doesn’t actively seek the best”, coupled with ever-expanding welfare-state entitlements, together with a lunatic social dogma that imagines that ever-increasing Diversity is the summum bonum of an enlightened civilization, is a clear path to national and cultural suicide. There are many other ways to get there also, and lots of ways to speed up the trip, but this is the path we are on.

    I have asked you repeatedly to keep your comments concise and to the point. You seem constitutionally incapable of doing so. You also seem not really to be reading or paying attention, but simply take each response as a trigger to launch another long, rambling, and barely coherent rant.

    We are not conversing productively. It’s time to move on.

    When these threads reach the point of diminishing returns it is my custom to give commenters the last word. You may have it, if you like (though it will probably be a great deal many more words than one, I fear…).

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  20. Kagehi says

    Rambling? Incoherent? Its also obvious to me that you don’t want to have any sort of actual discussion on the subject. You have already reached your conclusions, while sidelining a thousand secondary sources for the problems we face, an act that is both irrational and unscientific. I was going to attempt to apply with what I hoped would be a “short” analogy to what part of the problem really is, but you wouldn’t at all interested. Certainly not in someone who thinks you are basically dead wrong about the issue (and worse, at least partly stated they agree, to a point on some of them, like blind immigration).

    That I think discussion of someone else’s rather long rambling assertions requires less that 4 second sound bites to reply seems to cause people real problems, for some damn reason. Too much watching fracking TV news programs, where everything gets summed up in 30 second blurbs (and often distorted in the process), I guess. No one wants to listen, never mind read anything over a paragraph any more (unless its praise, or an anecdote that implies the author was right.

    So.. You can stuff your hypothesis, until you have a) real evidence, not just assertions, and b) actually confront the variables you *are* ignoring.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  21. Kagehi says

    Oh.. And, to be clear. My last big post *was* maybe failing to address your prior one. I was attempting to push my points, without addressing what I found specifically wrong about yours.

    The people that produce large families in secular societies are not **necessarily** those from countries that “are” hell holes. You are contradicting yourself in allowing this assumption to stand. The #1 complaint of “welfarism” isn’t that it supports people living alone, unmarried, with no kids, but that its supporting some idiot with 5, who won’t find other work, and moved here from some other country. Yes, country of origin “does” sometimes effect whether this is likely the case with immigrants (and that should be, and is sloppily, being addressed), but in 90% of cases, its not the immigrants taking welfare (though this is sadly the perception). Even Mexicans, who get blamed for all sorts of things **usually** work their asses off, then send 50% of their income out of the country to their extended families back home. Which isn’t the problem you seem to be arguing about. If it was, I would agree that it is a problem.

    And… I quite frankly don’t have a damn clue how the hell you figure multiculturalism fits into the whole thing, other than some form of the, “If you don’t speak English, then why are you here?”, type thinking you get from some people. Culture isn’t necessarily the problem. Many of them have higher standards of work ethics, internal cohesion and saner views on some matters than **ours** does. Instead, anti-multiculturalists invariably take only the negatives, often from a minority among the people being discussed, then say, “See! They just ain’t like us!” Its not addressing real causes, just making up an excuse to reject stuff that isn’t, “Like_us-ism”, enough. Which is the same damn thinking responsible for creating real problems in many cases.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink