Today’s post is at the Stream: Evolutionary Psychologists Claim Religion Is Explained By Energy Use. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.
It has become clear that the common statistical techniques used by scientists are responsible for the production of vast quantities of silliness. (For advanced, technical readers, here and here are hints why.)
The press is reporting on the paper “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions” by Nicolas Baumard and three others, published in Current Biology. It uses a statistical model to “prove” religions like Christianity were created because people got used energy…
Yet Baumard says “moralising religions did not arise until quite late in human history”. Here’s how he and his co-authors explain it in the paper:
[B]etween roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE, new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia…These doctrines all emphasized the…notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and in the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others)…Beyond this material world lies another reality in which human existence acquires a new meaning. In this other reality, humans are not just bodies anymore. They are endowed with a soul and can survive the death of their bodily incarnation. Most importantly, in this other reality, individuals pursuing material success are doomed. Only moderation and moral behavior guarantee salvation.
…Alas, we won’t learn about Judaism, at least not from Baumard and friends. They “excluded Judaism” from their studies because “the Hebrews were rarely politically independent”, and their statistical model relies on highly artificial quantifications of politics (about these, more below).
Instead, the authors focused on eight other societies in antiquity and discovered rough correlations between increased energy usage in these societies and the growth of what they classed as “moralistic” religions. The correlations were verified by an unnecessary statistical model. For these authors, the correlation proves the causation.
And so does evolutionary psychology theory, which predicts the rise of “human motivation and reward systems” when move folks away from “‘fast life’ strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and toward ‘slow life’ strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions) typically found in” the societies they studied. Theory says slow-lifers need to constrain the behavior of the fast-lifers and so invent religions which provides rules the fast-lifers must follow.
Yet by their own admission the measures of politics and religion used in the study were poor: “affluence and political complexity remain very crude…a very crude measure of urbanization (size of the main city)…[and] absolute energy capture does not take into account the distribution of resources within a given society.” (Their model did not take account of this crudity, which makes it highly dubious on statistical grounds alone.)
When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, leaving behind a few dozen followers in a remote province of the Roman Empire, few would have guessed that 350 years later Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire and would go on to become the most widely practised religion in the world.
How true! Very few did guess, which is what makes the sweep of Christianity so amazing. Energy use does not appear a likely candidate for its rise. Yet the one theory that explains all available data—that Jesus was who he said he was—is not dismissed, it is not even considered.
Baumard claims his theory could “explain the gradual decline of moralising religion in wealthier parts of the world”. As more “become affluent and adopt a slow strategy, the need to morally condemn fast strategies decreases, and with it the benefit of holding religious beliefs that justify doing so” and thus “Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”
Go there to read the rest. You know you want to. Darwin would want you to.