Ecology of religious beliefs

headimg It is well known that your country of birth has a big influence on your religious outlook. That’s why Ireland is dominated by Christians whereas Iran has a mostly Muslim population. Your scientific outlook doesn’t escape from this either.

For instance, it’s arguable that the idea of group selection is viewed much more favourably in the US than the UK. Turning back to religion, a group of authors have recently carried out a study on the ecology of religious belief. In their work they were able to predict the societies that believe in moralising high Gods by drawing on historical, social and ecological data.

As we’re in the beginning, we need a definition, so what exactly is a moralizing high God? These are “supernatural beings believed to have created or govern all reality, intervene in human affairs, and enforce or support human morality”. Supernatural belief has had a number of ecological correlates associated with it and this study points to environmental instability as one major driver. An environment with an unpredictable spatial or temporal distribution of resources lends itself to cultivating cooperation among the animals found within it. Among humans this results in a “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate”. And this is a fertile ground for the development of religious belief. One conclusion is that cultures in close proximity or those that share a common language exhibit similar religious beliefs.

However, the authors nuance this statement that this form of religion is being driven as a response to environmental harshness. In fact, they note that for societies living in a really harsh environment like the Inuits, variations tend to lead to more positive periods rather than negative ones and this seems to inversely correlate with the probability of believing in these type of gods.

One ironic point however (largely discussed in Jerry Coyne’s blog post), is that this paper is also influenced by the authors’ societal framework: a society traditionally believing in a god that they consider as moral and improving human lives. Taking that into account, some parts of the methodology heavily influence the results. The definition of morality by the authors and its benefits on humans as a species are highly depend on the societal framework where one is born. The “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate” is traditionally seen as a “good” thing for humanity in Abrahamic religions. Making it a universal or biological “right” behaviour is only the authors’ point of view (and probably one of their funding agencies).

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Original post co-written with Adam Kane

Written on January 13, 2015