Evolutionary Psychologists Claim Religion Is Explained By Energy Use. Seriously.

Here's Why They're Wrong

By William M Briggs Published on May 12, 2016

It has become clear that the common statistical techniques used by scientists are responsible for the production of vast quantities of silliness. (For advanced, technical readers, here and here are hints why.) A new case in point: The press is reporting on the paper “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions” by Nicolas Baumard and three others, published in Current Biology. It uses a statistical model to “prove” religions like Christianity were created because people got better at using energy.

Baumard explained in New Scientist that “Christianity’s success is often attributed to its supposedly unique message.” But, he says, “Christ’s message was not actually new.” For instance, from the “5th century BC on, Greeks started to believe that the dead were judged in Hades according to their deeds during life.”

This only shows that Baumard does not grasp Christ’s full message. No previous important figure in history claimed to be God and also demonstrated it. Baumard is right to say there are parallels between religions, though. The existence of broad parallels is after all how we know to separate beliefs from religions. What’s new here is that Baumard thinks he can explain without recourse to the supernatural why religions of a certain type arose.

Earlier religions like the eighth century BC Greek, he says, “were materialistic, mostly concerned with rituals, sacrifices and other ways of begging favours from their various divinities.” Baumard says the “heroes of Homer’s Iliad were openly polygamous and unfaithful.” Yes, but don’t forget the reason for the Trojan War was a scandalous and seen-as-immoral abduction and the subsequent saucy behavior of the abductee.

The pre-Christian Greek religion was moralistic. It wasn’t moralistic in the precise way Christianity is, but there were large similarities. It’s true that the Greeks saw “Achilles and Agamemnon [as] quick-tempered, sexually rapacious and arrogant,” as Baumard puts it, but the Greeks did not see these behaviors as therefore virtuous. Zeus did not command Be Ye Licentious! That is the motto of modernity.

Yet Baumard says “moralising religions did not arise until quite late in human history.” Here’s how he and his co-authors explain it in the paper:

Between roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE, new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia. …These doctrines all emphasized the … notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and in the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others). … Beyond this material world lies another reality in which human existence acquires a new meaning. In this other reality, humans are not just bodies anymore. They are endowed with a soul and can survive the death of their bodily incarnation. Most importantly, in this other reality, individuals pursuing material success are doomed. Only moderation and moral behavior guarantee salvation.

This is loose enough, in all conscience, but there isn’t space here enough to untangle the knots. Instead, we’ll stick with the author’s main question: why did new religions and moralities arise? Why, for instance, did Buddha gain such traction some time between the sixth and fourth centuries BC? And why did Socrates and his intellectual progeny, who had never heard of the Buddha, flourish around the same time? Why did Judaism appear and become a religion unlike any other; indeed, in its transformation into Christianity, the most consequential religion? Everything has to have a reason.

Alas, we won’t learn about Judaism, at least not from Baumard and friends. They “excluded Judaism” from their studies because “the Hebrews were rarely politically independent,” and their statistical model relies on highly artificial quantifications of politics (about these, more below).

Instead, the authors focused on eight other societies in antiquity and discovered rough correlations between increased energy usage in these societies and the growth of what they classed as “moralistic” religions. The correlations were verified by an unnecessary statistical model. For these authors, the correlation proves the causation.

And so does evolutionary psychology theory, which predicts the rise of “human motivation and reward systems” when folks move away from “‘fast life’ strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and toward ‘slow life’ strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions) typically found in” the societies they studied. The theory says slow-lifers need to constrain the behavior of the fast-lifers and so they invent religions which provide moralistic rules the fast-lifers must follow.

Yet by their own admission the measures of politics and religion used in the study were poor: “affluence and political complexity remain … a very crude measure of urbanization (size of the main city) … [and] absolute energy capture does not take into account the distribution of resources within a given society.” (Their model did not take account of this crudity, which makes it highly dubious on statistical grounds alone.)

Why use statistics anyway? Judaism and Christianity are historical. These religions claim certain events actually happened in history to real people; further, these events can be checked, and have been. What Baumard and company fail to do is to even consider these historical facts, which is astonishing. In his article, Baumard says,

When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, leaving behind a few dozen followers in a remote province of the Roman Empire, few would have guessed that 350 years later Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire and would go on to become the most widely practised religion in the world.

How true! Very few did guess, which is what makes the sweep of Christianity so amazing. Energy use does not appear a likely candidate for its rise. Yet the one theory that explains all available data — that Jesus was who he said he was — is not dismissed; it is not even considered.

Baumard claims his theory could “explain the gradual decline of moralising religion in wealthier parts of the world.” As more “become affluent and adopt a slow strategy, the need to morally condemn fast strategies decreases, and with it the benefit of holding religious beliefs that justify doing so” and thus “Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”

Yet moral condemnation has scarcely vanished. Just try saying a man wearing a dress and calling himself a woman is a man and listen to the chorus of angry denouncements. No doubt some budding evolutionary psychologist could explain that as well. But it will be mere story telling, not science.

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