Bryan Caplan  

Genetics and the Future of Religion

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Religiosity is partly genetic, and the religious are out-breeding the secular.  It follows, then, that societies will get more religious over time.  But over at Gene Expression, Razib argues that while the premises are true, the conclusion is false.  He starts by looking at Turkish data from the World Values Survey, then doggedly argues in the comments with a slew of critics.  When one reader insists:

Razib replies:

I learned a lot from the comments.  But by the end of the debate, I just wanted Razib to propose a bet...

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Sebastian writes:

How about: there will be more expression of the religious gene, but it won't have the proposed impact because it will be expressed in a way that is very different from how it is expressed today.

Zac Gochenour writes:

I've not read the original thread, but here are my thoughts.

Religiosity is a preference with some genetic basis.. but it is a preference that must compete with a lot of other preferences which have a genetic basis that religious doctrine forbids, like sex (particularly premarital), or food (particularly the really tasty stuff like bacon). Other forms of exciting, varied entertainment compete with religion for time and resources. This, combined with increasing intelligence, accounts for the decline in religiosity in the Western world, despite the best efforts of proselytizers and baby-happy Mormons.

At its core, religion is anti-human, anti-life. This is a meme that just cannot survive, particularly as humanity reaches new levels of success. I am reading Robert Wright's The Evolution of God which attempts to demonstrate the counterargument but I am thus far finding it unpersuasive (although I've picked up many interesting tidbits).

8 writes:

Does it matter that Turkey is closer to becoming an Islamic state than previously?

I think a more important question is where do the religious people send their children to be educated. If they send them to public school, then they've chosen secular over religious, no matter what they answer on a survey.

TheOctahedron writes:

Bryan, why not think that societies across the world will have a strong tendency to stay largely religious despite secular struggles to the contrary? Obviously certain tendencies work against it, but even Western European societies report widespread religious belief, if not in traditional Christianity. The most unreligious societies are those who have had communism thrust upon them. Force can sometimes do it, but in the end, until people can remove their religious proclivities, secularists can't do much to stop it.

As for Turkey, remember that it had a forcefully secular government for quite some time, although nothing approaching the communist countries.

Oh and Zac: "At its core, religion is anti-human, anti-life."

You sound like a Randian!

Les writes:

It seems to me that there is a major distinction between religion and religiosity.

I define religion as a sincere dedication to a single ultimate ethical standard, and to rendering to Caesar belongs to Caesar, and to Faith what belongs to Faith.

I define religiosity as merely pious (but not reflective) conformity to fixed rituals of behavior.

It is necessary (but not sufficient) to recognize that distinction in order for any argument to be valid

Dr. T writes:

There is absolutely no genetic cause for religion. There is no evidence for such a claim, and the idea is absurd at its face. We are not insects or birds with pre-programmed behavior patterns or mating songs. Belief in religion is a complex mental phenomenon that cannot be programmed into ones DNA.

I will agree that there appears to be a significant human predilection towards jumping to conclusions based on minimal evidence (to make rapid categorizations and decisions). This leads to magical thinking, personification of natural phenomena, and development of religions. But, the latter is not actually programmed into the genes, and some of us think rationally, logically, and scientifically, and have no need for religions.

My personal belief is that most societies encourange selective retention of magical thinking among their children. In US Christian families, parents of kids over age 10 discourage continued magical thinking about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, etc. but encourage continued magical thinking about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. This dichotomy maintains religion across generations but results in the continued use of magical thinking in other aspects of life than religion.

Craig writes:

"Religiosity is partly genetic, and the religious are out-breeding the secular."

I agree with Dr. T.

Says who? What evidence is there for this statement?

I am so sick of this modern pseudo-scientific determinism.

razib writes:

perhaps what bryan should have said is that *religious intensity* seems to be *somewhat heritable*. go to google scholar and enter in 'religiosity' and 'heritable.' if selection upon a trait is correlated with heritable variation then you have grounds for change of the phenotypic mean over time. i think bryan's original statement is defensible, but to my knowledge no QTL for 'religiosity' as such has been found so you have to assert it on theoretical, not empirical, grounds.

i'll crank the numbers at some point and post them. but the problem is that the more i look back at history the more wary i am of projecting more than 2 generations into the future (seeing as i'm friends with many singulitarians that might also result in my caution about future projection).

p.s. most of you don't know anything about religion. read a few books. and i don't mean the bible.

Zac Gochenour writes:

TheOctahedron writes: "You sound like a Randian!"

Rand was right about a lot of things. Religion, for example.

greenish writes:

and if religiousness is correlated with heritable psychological traits - which it is; then society will get more religious.

No, society will get more religious than it would have been if religiousness weren't heritable, not necessarily more religious than it was in the past. Countervailing trends could be stronger.

Stan Greer writes:

What makes Razib think the religious have been outbreeding the secular for most of history?

As far as I know, from what I have read, this is a phenomenon of quite recent vintage.

I will cite one famous example that, although it proves nothing by itself, is actually typical.

The Galbraith (sp. ?) parents, as described in the loving memoir Cheaper by the Dozen, apparently never attended church while they were bringing up their 12 children in the 1920's and 30's. They were by all evidence irreligious, but didn't like Planned Parenthood types one bit.

The alliance between secular elites and birth controllers has really only gotten tight since the seventies, as far as I can tell.

Stan Greer
Fairfax, Va.

George writes:

Zac Gochenour wrote:

At its core, religion is anti-human, anti-life.

That's true of some religions, Communism and Environmentalism in particular.

But many human religions tend to promote people and their health (physical and mental as well as spiritual). Some even provide a basis for thinking humans have individual rights.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

A possibility is that a genetic desire to believe "in something bigger" may, due to cultural forces, be moving from a belief in God(s) to belief in socialism, populism, patriotism, or "green".

Everyday I see people doing these "green" rituals without any desire for evidence that they actually accomplish anything. It is right up there with praying the rosary or Buddhist meditation. It just makes these people feel good.

When people with genetic "religiousness" digress from the religions that enhance reproduction (Catholicism for example) to those that don't (Socialism, for example), the evolutionary competitive advantage vanishes.

"There is absolutely no genetic cause for religion. There is no evidence for such a claim, and the idea is absurd at its face."

Religion is a cultural construct, but the ability to believe in things that don't actually exist and the need to seek a "higher power" to acquire and maintain your religion (religiousness) is at least partially genetic:

"A study published in the current issue of Journal of Personality studied adult male monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins to find that difference in religiousness are influenced by both genes and environment. But during the transition from adolescence to adulthood, genetic factors increase in importance while shared environmental factors decrease. Environmental factors (i.e. parenting and family life) influence a child’s religiousness, but their effects decline with the transition into adulthood. An analysis of self-reported religiousness showed that MZ twins maintained their religious similarity over time, while the DZ twins became more dissimilar. “These correlations suggest low genetic and high environmental influences when the twins were young but a larger genetic influence as the twins age” the authors state."

caveat bettor writes:

this article struck me as highly religious, along with some of the comments.

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