Saturday, May 8, 2010

Religion: not so bad after all!

A paper discusses the correlations between large societies, market behavior, and world religions.

Humans have a difficult relationship with truth. We love it, we seek it, we respect it. We habitually claim to have it long before we really do. And in our heart of hearts, we also fear it. One fearsome truth is death. Another is the meaninglessness of existence. It is the highest irony that to escape such truths, humans have created countless other fibs, fantasies, and scams. Oh, what a web we weave!

The premier purveyor of these self-deceptions has been shamanism/religion, which may provide hope for transcendent justice, visions of a god-filled world of mythical drama, life after death, complex justifications for social power relations, social cohesion, and generous amounts of meaning. Can we live without it? That is the question of this secular time, when our self-consciousness has been raised to excruciating heights via evolutionary biology, existentialism, psychoanalysis, and other myth-shattering ideas.

Historically and pre-historically, we have not lived without it. Every society has harbored some kind of religious system, though some contemporary societies appear to have, perhaps for the first time ever, lost its services. From the simple beginnings of superstition and animism to the ever-more fantastic products of theology, we have experienced a crescendo of communal imagined meaning, charming to look back on as myth and fable, and still a matter of vibrant belief in some quarters.

Where do we go now? Will knowledge and self-knowledge keep undermining mythical sources of meaning and ultimately banish religion (the secularization hypothesis), or will religion (or some other ideology) tease (or force) the genie of consciousness back in to the bottle of blissful communal ideology? The answer lies not in any analytical framework, but in human nature- whether we continue to cultivate knowledge and value truth over comfort, and whether functional communal meaning can be devised in the absence of myth and surrender to the many shamans of our time- herbal healers, theologians, nationalist revolutionaries, Islamists, etc.

That digression was by way of introduction to a paper in a recent issue of Science, which offers a rationale for the tremendous parallel growth of "world" religions and world population. "Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history."

As is usual in so-called social science, most of what they have to say is far from novel. I mean, how much of human culture is "innate psychology" in any case? It is essentially impossible to disentangle culture from innate psychology, other than wild-child cases, which indicate that we are cultured virtually to the core.

Anyhow, the authors make the case that the modern cosmopolitan culture depends on dramatically different norms than the typical hunter-gatherer band of prehistory, which we see modeled in some respects in surviving human indigenous cultures, and perhaps in some small way in the small-band stucture of chimpanzee society. The new norms of mass society are characterized by an ability to trust complete strangers and treat them fairly- to buy/sell food from them, to join them in political action, to join companies with them, to "Friend" them- to do all the things that make our large societies run smoothly (until fraudulent actors take advantage of everyone's accentuate-the-positive trust and take the economy to the cleaners!).

Paired with that trust is a new norm of punishment- punishing violators of the first norm even though the individual punisher may not directly benefit- combined the practice of broadcasting the (bad) reputations of violators. One critique I would have is that it is hard to imagine that these tendencies are specific to large societies. Small societies have extremely strong reputational mechanisms, (gossip), and while typically distrustful of outsiders, have carried on trade with immesely distant partners as far back as archeologists have been able to trace.

Small societies are typically very fair among themselves- positively socialistic on an extended family model. So the question may be much more the sense of membership that people have in increasingly large and abstract communities (e.g. nationalism) than any changes to the psychology of group behavior.

At the heart of paper are a set of experiments, done with the hapless members of widely varying societies all over the world, from hunter-gatherer (Hadza) to blue-collar (Missouri). The first core experiment is to give one person some money, and ask him or her to share it with a second person. Both are apparently brought face-to-face, though the article is unclear on this point. The amount shared is up to the first person exclusively (this is called the dictator game). The authors take higher sharing to imply higher "fairness", and sharing ranges from half (rare) to none (also rare).

But it would seem to me that this has little to do with fairness, and perhaps more with how prosperous and generous people feel- how generous they can be with the amounts of money at play in the experiment, and how connected the feel with their partners. The amount was set at one day's local wage, which seems like a well-controlled level. But one day's wage may represent quite different values to people with either no reserves, living hand-to-mouth, or with substantial financial reserves, access to credit, and other cultural supports (social security, etc.) that allow higher generosity. The values involved may also be different if money represents the common currency of all facets of life, as it does for us, or if it represents inessential luxury values for getting occasional tools and decorations. In different societies, money, even if numerically similar in value, may be quite differently valued. It is very hard to understand why the experimenters imagined their games where truly comparable across cultures.

The following graph shows how well the US stacks up in what I would term generosity in the dicator game, and how this value correlates with what the authors term market integration- the percentage of calories in the diet that are bought rather than self-gathered or grown.

This graphed relation is detectable- market integration correlates with generosity (though the spread is obviously very broad indeed, with the unintegrated Au of New Guinea approximating maximal levels). Generosity was less strongly correlated with membership in world religions, though here the statistics were extremely poor. Virtually all the subjects were members of world religions (the only group with less than 50% membership was the Hadza [0%], while the Au had 100% membership).

Further experimental setups explored punishment tendencies, and I won't get into them here, though the interesting conclusion from the authors is that "... we find that world religion is associated with significantly (P<0.05) more punishment, though market integration reveals no such relationship". Well, surprise, surprise! As one can tell just glancing at the religious landscape, though religious hierarchies may be loath to punish their own members, they are hotbeds of outwardly-directed punishment in defense of their moral "standards", and in support of (indeed expression of) their own cultural power.

One has to note as an aside that these anthropologists utterly ignore the validity of any religious doctrine they are dealing in. Moonies, Islam, Mormonism- it is all the same to them, as though they were looking at ants obeying a pheromone-laden queen. They are far above this fray, with the implication typical in academic circles that the validity of such doctrines is not worth considering.

So, if one takes this work seriously, the conclusions are that some mix of using money-based markets (i.e. buying food), and being nominally part of a world religion each account in some part for increased individual buy-in to the norms of large societies. As unifying ideologies, religions offer just such social norms, bringing disparate people into deeply meaningful community membership which carries with it the punishment of black sheep as well as love and devotion of loyal members. The world religions, by definition and by a sort of natural selection, have specialized in servicing large populations by way of organizational hierarchies, viral spreading memes, and strategic good-cop/bad-cop deployment of both violence and love.

On the other hand, it might simply be the actual act of trading and carrying on the day-to-day activities of larger societies that clues everyone in to the benefits of a new paradigm of higher trust and punishment (i.e. duties of citizenship, like jury duty, respect for legitimate authority, etc.). This realization is then cultivated formally and informally as it is in our schools and preschools, with the result that religion, while helpful in some areas of poor schooling/cultivation (such as striving Pentecostals in Latin America), is less helpful in the setting of a deeply educated and cosmopolitan modern secular culture, indeed impeding greater trust development by its parochial divisiveness, not to say occasional literal terrorism.

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