Crying Babies & Religion

You know things are going bad for evolutionary psychology when the field, and its methods, have become the subject of satire performed by scientists. The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is an annual competition that celebrates “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” Presentations are judged, in part, by how much “scientific” information is brought to bear on the hypothesis, data, and conclusion. In practice, this means that these post hoc evolutionary hypotheses must be supported by lots of citations, graphs, and most importantly, fancy maths and impressive statistics. These are of course the adornments that make things, like bullshit, look and sound scientific.

I was not aware of the BAH-Fest until the other day, when I happened across last year’s winning presentation by Tomer Ullman. He explains the adaptive advantage of crying babies in the theoretical context of group level selection:

While watching this brilliant bit of bullshit, I couldn’t help but think that crying babies and religion have much in common. To be more precise, I was thinking that “crying babies” function, in this BAH evolutionary argument, in much the same way that “religion” functions in similar kinds of adaptive arguments.

If Ullman had substituted “religion” for “crying babies,” his presentation would have been taken seriously, and passed scientific muster, by those who argue that religion is a group level evolutionary adaptation that fosters social solidarity. It should go without saying, but it won’t, that such solidarity is said to “promote loyalty” and “foster altruism,” which is just a polite (or “scientific”) way of saying that religion, like crying babies, makes for fanatical warriors and competitive success. If you don’t believe me, just look at the models and maths.

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5 thoughts on “Crying Babies & Religion

  1. Cris Post author

    For starters, we should closely and critically consider what is meant or defined by “religion.” Once we do this, we can begin having conversations about whether “religion” is universal. If we should find, after such a conversation, that “religion” is close to universal in human societies, our next question should be when and where did these “religious” formations or conceptions arise?

    I contend, at least for heuristic reasons and historical ones (the latter being the most important), that there is nothing like “religion” until and unless some society has participated in the Neolithic Transition, or food production. This means, of course, that “religion” is the product of a particular kind of place, circumstance, and history. This would mean, in turn, that “religion” (especially as conceived or understood by moderns) is not “universal.”

  2. Steve Lawrence

    Okay, if religion arose with farming, perhaps that’s why it’s fading. Farmers are maybe two percent today in USA. Perhaps hunter-gatherer Siberian shamanism is not “religion,” and likewise Native American’s Great Spirit where agriculture was absent or less. But whatever religion is, there’s quite a lot of it among societies. Where there are states, one notices that kings are god-like, and gods are called king, heaven kingdom, and such; useful. Promises of a fine afterlife (70 virgins?) are helpful incentives, even to blowing oneself to kingdom…oh there we go again. What is the reason the majors arose, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Shinto? (I’ve a tougher time with China, and that’s a biggie.)

  3. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure there is much good evidence that religion is fading; there is good evidence that Americans are moving away from organized and/or traditional forms of religion, but they are not turning toward atheism (which shows only a slight uptick). The “spiritual but not religious” category also seems to be growing. As for Siberians, Native Americans and other aboriginal peoples or foragers, I think it better to characterize their ideas, philosophies, and practices are “worldviews” rather than something parceled, splintered, and selected for analytical examination as “religion.” I agree that in all agricultural, industrial, and developed societies, what most of us call and recognize as “religion” is quite prevalent, and nearly universal. If you use the blog’s search function and find my posts on the Neolithic transition, Mesopotamia, the Axial Age, and China, these may answer some of your very big questions.

  4. Chris Kavanagh

    In most of the world religion, even if showing some decline, is far from fading into irrelevance, this would certainly seem to be the case in the US, which is an outlier in regards Western nations and religiosity generally. You also clearly don’t need states to have God kings and in fact, ‘modern’ states have generally tended to replace divine rulers (while occasionally preserving them as a ‘symbol’). The ‘reason’ for the major world religious traditions are multifarious and unlikely to fall neatly into to any single explanation, its also worth noting that China’s irreligious turn is a very modern phenomena. For most of its history China has been a country with a wide variety of religious traditions in prominence.

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