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Jared Diamond on Religion October 25, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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You may be familiar with author Jared Diamond from his famous work Guns, Germs and Steel.  I love that book, and I think it’s a classic.  Well right now I’m reading his more recent book The World Until Yesterday –  What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  In this book he looks at existing hunter-gatherer and tribal societies in some depth, with chapters on different aspects of how they function.  He then compares them to our modern culture, to see if there are any useful lessons we can take from them about how we might do those same things better.  He analyzes topics like child-rearing, violence, treatment of the elderly and language.

But what surprised me was the chapter on religion.  Hidden toward the back of this book is probably the clearest and most concise discussion of the phenomena of religion that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot on this subject.  Since this chapter was so good, I’d like to try to present a summary of it here.  (Some of this summary is passages lifted directly from the book, some is my attempts to summarize and bring in ideas he presented in other chapters.)

He starts with the puzzle of religion, that all traditional societies appear to have it, or something like it, even though it sometimes incurs a large opportunity cost of time and resources that could have been devoted to other activities.  He posits that there must be some advantage to these societies in having religion, otherwise they would have been out-competed by other groups who didn’t have it.  So there must be some kind of useful function to religion, which is what he spends most of the chapter looking at.

But first, there is the initial problem of defining “religion”. He gives a list of 16 attempts at a brief definition, from dictionaries, Wikipedia, and various authors, none of which really agree and none of which seem to really do the job.  He then proceeds to do a much better job of defining religion by listing five attributes religions commonly have:

  • Belief in the supernatural
  • Shared membership in a social movement
  • Costly and visible proofs of commitment
  • Practical rules for one’s behavior (“morality”)
  • Belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced to intervene in worldly life.

Not everything that we would classify as a religion has every one of these, but they all definitely must have most of these, and must have the second item to qualify.  One guy believing stuff all by himself does not make a religion. (I would have put that attribute first on the list!)

Here are the seven functions he identifies religion as having:

  1. Explanation
  2. Defusing anxiety
  3. Providing comfort
  4. Standardized organization
  5. Political obedience
  6. Codes of behavior towards strangers
  7. Justifying wars

Before I continue with this chapter summary, I need to backtrack a little.  In this book Diamond discusses four different types of human societies, and I need to define those briefly for the rest of the discussion to make sense.

  • Bands: Groups of a few dozen individuals, usually one or a few extended families.  Often nomadic, hunter gatherers, or perhaps garden farmers.  Low population densities.  Everyone knows everyone else, no formal leadership.  No formal political leadership or economic specialization.  Egalitarian.
  • Tribes: Groups of up to a few hundred members, but still small enough that everyone knows everyone else.  Usually farmers or herders, often sedentary.  Leadership is relatively informal, there may be a “big man” who functions as a weak leader, leading by persuasion and personality. Relatively egalitarian, only weak economic specialization.
  • Chiefdoms: Groups of up to several thousand, too many for everyone to know everyone else.  Formal leaders assisted by  non-specialized all-purpose officials. Economic specialization.  Institutionalized inequality.  Redistribution of resources (taxes).
  • Nation-States: Populations from tens of thousands up to millions. Food production only requires a small percentage of the population;  most people are specialists of some kind. Police, laws and moral codes. Formal leadership, specialized bureaucrats. Economic and social inequality.

I’ll try to sum up his discussion of each of the functions of religion, and include my comments.

1. Explanation:  This one’s pretty obvious.  Humans want causal explanations for everything, and if we can’t figure one out, we’ll make one up.  This is a byproduct of our need for pattern recognition, and the need to assume an active agent when we don’t know the cause of something, because the cost of missing when someone means you harm is very high.  It’s very satisfying to think you have an explanation for everything, so once a supernatural belief becomes established it’s very tenacious.  As our society has progressed from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, and our ability to figure out the actual answers has increased, this function of religion has diminished.  (I don’t see how this function of religion could give an advantage to a group possessing religion over a group without it.  To me, this function is really more of mental malware, with no survival value.  It’s more of a reason why people personally like having religion.)

2. Defusing Anxiety: People turn to religion to deal with problems and dangers beyond their control.  By engaging in a ritual of some sort, people feel as if they have done something of use in a situation where they are actually helpless, and are able to suppress their anxiety and function more normally.  People almost never turn to ritual when it comes to everyday predictable things.  As an example, he talks about a fishing village in the South Pacific, where they fish both in the open ocean and in a quiet lagoon.  The lagoon fishing is safe, easy, and has predictable yields, while ocean fishing is dangerous and unpredictable.  These villagers do not invoke magic for lagoon fishing, but they do magic rituals before heading out on an ocean fishing trip.    This function has also decreased as our societies grew, because people were able to take control over more and more of their environment. (I can see how this function would confer a survival advantage to small groups.  A village full of confident people would certainly have an advantage over a village full of fear and anxiety.  Even if that confidence is unwarranted. )

3. Providing Comfort: Religion can function to provide comfort, hope and meaning when life is hard.  It lets people explain suffering and death, and attribute some meaning to all the crap that life throws at you.  This function may have increased over time: as people settled into agriculture and larger social groups, in many ways  life actually became harder.  Nutrition was worse, disease became more prevalent, family sizes grew, and leisure time decreased.  Even today the more marginalized and underprivileged modern social groups are, the more religious they tend to be. (This may also be part of the explanation of why women tend to be more religious than men – their lives are often less under their own control, and religion can give them the illusion that they are in control of something.  I think this function is possibly just a part of the Defusing Anxiety function above.)

4. Standardized Organization:  This isn’t really a function of religion for bands or tribes, they don’t need it.  They have no full-time specialists, and no surplus available to support full-time leaders or large public projects.  As Chiefdoms arise there is a need for such things, and religion is a useful tool for accomplishing this.

5. Political Obedience:  A necessary part of organizing a large society is collecting resources to use to support the full-time leaders, construct public works, or support armies.  How do you get the people to obey the rulers and give up part of their production?  Again, religion is a really good tool for this – if the King is chosen by the gods, or is related to the gods, or is a god himself, then with an organized religious system supporting him he can ensure obedience and payment.  This function has decreased in modern nation-states, politicians now don’t usually invoke a deity to get people to pay their taxes or obey laws.

6. Codes of Behavior Towards Strangers:  At the band and tribe level, everyone knows everybody else, and what their relationships with those people are.  Not only with members of his own tribe, but with the neighboring tribes as well. There’s no standardized moral rules, only a network of useful  relationships.   There is no standard as to how you behave toward people you don’t know, partially because meeting a stranger is very rare.  Any stranger is from outside a person’s circle of known relationships, and may well be an enemy, or at least a threat.  The response to a stranger may be to try to kill them or to run away.  But when chiefdoms emerge, a new problem arises:  there are now members of your group who you do not know, but whom you must not treat as enemies;  group stability depends on this.  So now it’s necessary to have a formal code of behavior for how you treat members of your own group.  So religion takes on a new function, with a code of behavior supposedly handed down by the gods, with divine punishment threatened for those who break them.  This function has also decreased in modern secular nation-states, our laws no longer invoke the wrath of god as a deterrent.

This is also the religious function that makes costly and visible proofs of commitment valuable.  Since you don’t know everybody in the kingdom, how can you tell who’s part of “us” and therefore must be treated well, and who’s part of “them” and can be safely mistreated?  Who can you trust to have your back and who might be a spy?  It’s useful if there’s some way to tell who’s a friend, and if it’s a way that’s unlikely to be faked so much the better.  Sure, an outsider might say a few prayers, but will he grow his hair, wear tassels, abstain from pork, make all the temple sacrifices and cut a piece off of each of his sons (ancient Hebrews)?  Will he wear magic underwear, learn secret handshakes, give 10% of his income and devote two years of his life to missionary work (Mormons)?  Other examples include permanent bodily mutilation, long expensive pilgrimages, and publicly espousing rationally implausible beliefs. (I think this idea of commitment badges is probably worth its own book, and I’ll probably be blogging more about it in the future.  For instance, I think that Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is an excellent example of believers making a costly and visible proof of commitment.)

7. Justifying Wars:  This is also a new dilemma faced by growing societies. In bands and tribes war is always personal, and religion generally does not come into it.  Each combatant knows exactly why they wish to attack the members of the other group, and there are no laws to restrain violence and retaliation.  But as chiefdoms develop this also must change.   A person spends their life being told that it’s not OK to kill strangers or steal their stuff, because the gods say so. How can a state persuade the population that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” actually means “Thou must kill, under the following circumstances” without getting its soldiers hopelessly confused and prone to kill the wrong people?  But by using religion, this can be resolved, by declaring that all other religions are wrong, and that it is just and right to kill their adherents.  Societies of religious fanatics are very dangerous to those around them, from biblical Old Testament genocides to modern terrorists.  The survival advantage of having an army who believes they are doing god’s work is very clear.  Modern secular states no longer need to invoke “god wants you to fight”, but in many societies today it’s still being used.

Diamond’s conclusion about the future of religion is that functions 1 and 4-7 are likely to continue to decrease, but that 2 and 3 are likely to persist.

I’m not sure I’ve done justice to this chapter (I’ve omitted his discussion of the relevance of the evolution of electric eels, for example), but the way he presents these ideas was just too good not to make an attempt.  I really recommend this book, and not just for this chapter.  I’ve been reading a library copy, but it’s going on my list of books I need to own.

 

 

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Comments»

1. charles - October 25, 2014

Fascinating post.
An additional characteristic a religion must have, not to be called a religion but in order to last long enough for others to notice it, is that it must be vague enough to be difficult to falsify. Very specific but false claims will be found out. Add in the threat of punishment (before or after death) and it has even more staying power.

Liked by 1 person

2. N. E. White - October 25, 2014

I love Jared Diamond’s work, too. I’ll have to get this one as well.

Interesting topic and one that we atheist tend to ignore sometimes. Why do so many people *believe*? There’s got to be a reason, and those make sense.

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3. Jared Diamond on Religion | Christians Anonymous - October 25, 2014

[…] Source: Jared Diamond on Religion […]

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4. Captain Cassidy - October 28, 2014

I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel and you’ve just put this other book of his on my reading to-do list. Thanks for writing this review–and for such an enjoyable blog!

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5. BlkAmAth - January 4, 2015

The NatGeo video version of “Guns Germs and Steel” has become a staple of the World History class I teach.. I’ll certainly be checking out Diamond’s more recent book.
I’m so fascinated by the Difusing Anxiety role of religion and how “People almost never turn to ritual when it comes to everyday predictable things.” This is so obvious yet I’ve never really thought about it. Athletes pray before games yet never pray before practice… People pray before getting on planes but not before getting in cars (despite cars being far more dangerous).. It’s all about dealing with the anxiety for what is perceived to be out of one’s control.

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6. Daniel Digby - January 7, 2015

If you are looking for a group of people who are an exception to everything that seems reasonable to believe is true, look no further than the Pirahã of Brazil. They not only have no religion, they understand the futility of having a religion and have resisted all attempts to “civilize” them. Ironically, they may be more civilized than any other group. In fact, after learning their language (which while being “simple”, is extremely difficult to learn) and the way they think, the missionary Daniel Everett was converted to atheism.

I wrote about them in http://infrequentatheist.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/rambling-2/. They are a good lesson that not everything is as it seems.

Fortunately, Brazil’s agency to protect the Pirahã (FUNAI) will not let anyone who knows their language visit. They are busy stamping out the native language in favor of Portuguese, introducing television, and educating them in how civilized societies work in an attempt to permanently eradicate the Pirahã culture.

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