Tomas Rees: “Religion has become a tool for increasing barriers between people”

Tomas Rees is a medical writer with a PhD in biotechnology. His blog won the Research Blogging Award in 2010 in the category of Social Sciences and Anthropology. Rees wants to know "why some people believe in gods and what the psychological and social consequences of this beliefs are." Epiphenom is easily one of the most elegant, intellectually honest and well-informed research blogs about the science of religion available in the web. We have 5 questions for @Epiphenom_blog:

1. When did you start blogging about the science of religion? Why are you so interested in this issue?

I started blogging back in 2007. Originally, it was with a small group of UK-based individuals - a group now called "Humanists4Science". Although it started as a group blog, I ended up doing most of the writing, and it also soon became clear that my interests were a little different from theirs. So I took over the blog, and renamed it. We're still active as a group, and still run another blog at http://humanists4science.blogspot.com/

I actually became interested in the topic itself somewhat earlier, as a result of a discussion on an online forum at the British Humanist Association. We were talking about why the US is so religious, and I had a gut feeling that it was something to do with inequality. So I crunched some numbers, and found that the idea was plausible. As I looked into it more, I realised that this idea - that inequality can increase religious fervour - was not something that had really been investigated.

2. Your contribution [PDF] to the study of religion give more credit to the idea that economic insecurity is strongly associated with religiosity across countries. To put it in an example: Is this the explanation why americans are more religious than norwegians?

It's part of the reason. I actually looked at three different theories - that religion increases when it is freed from state controls, that religion decreases as average wealth increases, and that religion decreases as economic inequality decreases. I found that all three were important, and that inequality seemed to be an important reason why countries that are similarly wealthy and liberal (like the USA and Norway), differ in terms of the importance of religion. That's since been confirmed by other analyses, but what still is unclear is the degree to which the cause and effect is circular - i.e. does the presence of religion lead to more inequality?

However it's important to realise that this isn't by any means the full explanation of the differences between Norway and the USA. Other cultural and social factors certainly play an important role - for example, the role of religion in national identity.

3. According to the "cognitive science of religion" approach, religion is mostly "explained" by evolution and the human mind. What is, in your opinion, the place of nature (& the natural sciences) in the explanation of religion?

Religion is composed of a number of different elements, all of which are also found in other social settings. To some extent, all of these elements are 'natural' - we naturally make errors about how the world works, we naturally see purpose in random events and mistakenly attribute them to conscious agents, we naturally like to gather together in groups with a common goal, we like to sing and dance together, and we like to follow leaders. Although nobody has come up with a cast-iron definition of religion, when several of these elements come together we call the result 'religion'.

“The most plausible explanations
for religion are based around the
idea of cultural selection.”
So religion is, in a sense, natural - for some people more than others. That's not too surprising, because religion is something we invented and so of course it appeals to our psychology. The big question is whether it is selected for by evolution. That is, is religion so common today because it increased survival over evolutionary periods of time, with the result that we have genetically evolved a predisposition to religion? Although this sounds plausible, in fact no-one has yet been able to produce a satisfactory account of how this could happen. For example, it's been suggested that religion makes people more honest, which helps their group (and so their genes) survive. But either more honesty is favoured by evolution (in which case you don't need religion) or it isn't (in which case religion would be harmful to your genetic prospects). Some people suggest that religious fervour is a 'signal' of honest intent - but the problem is that it's a signal that can easily be faked - and there's plenty of evidence that people do fake religion in order to take advantage of others.

Currently, the most plausible explanations for religion are based around the idea of cultural selection (similar to the idea of memes). The idea is that those cultures that are best able to work on our psychological substrate to create a powerful society will end up dominating (and being adopted by) other societies. So we believe in magical beings as a side effect of a brain that evolved to be hypervigilant for potential threats (i.e. the psychological building blocks are there for other reasons), and we have created religion (and in particular the so-called 'world religions', like Christianity and Islam) as a result of nurture, not nature.

4. Secularization is still trending in some parts of the west. Simultaneously, some scholars argue that the western society is now “postsecular” , with religious opinions strongly influencing the public sphere. Do you agree?

I think that depends on the country, of course. In Europe the northern, Protestant countries lost their religion a few decades ago, but in the Catholic countries it's still quite a recent phenomenon. One of the interesting things that you see is that as religion becomes less popular, so those remaining religious people become more strident in their demands for a more active role for religion. That's been shown in survey data from Europe, and I suspect something similar may be happening in the USA. We know that religion is declining in the USA, and a Christian slant can no longer be assumed in society - as a result, demands for overt displays of Christian fidelity and adherence to Christian values are becoming more strident.

5. Various studies suggest that believers and non believers to some extent develop different moral attitudes and “cognitive styles”. How strong, do you think, is the effect of religiosity (or lack thereof) in human psychology?

I don't think that it has much effect, to be honest. At least, not in a modern, secular society. I think that most of the differences you see between the religious and non-religious are down to self selection (i.e. only certain people in any society are attracted to religion, and those people tend to share some characteristics).

I think that religions have been historically important in breaking down the barriers between small ethnic groups and so allowing co-operation and trust to extend over enormous large groups of strangers. These days, however, we achieve pretty much the same effects by raising children to have these universalist values, without reference to any god.

I think the primary effect of religion these days is in fact the opposite. Because religion is often now identified with cultural conservatism, it's become a tool for increasing barriers between people.

Versión de la entrevista en español.