Skip to content

How is Religion Useful?

David Sloan Wilson is a hardcore evolutionary biologist; Evolution is his religion. That is what makes his approach to studying religion so particularly interesting. Borrowing the term “Secular Utility” from Emile Durkheim, Sloan appreciates and in many ways dissects the importance of religious practices in human prosperity. It makes the reader wonder if religious rules are the source or the product of practices that aided in success. I think his opinion leads more toward the religious rules stemming out of evolutionary success rather than initially causing it. He views religion from an organismal approach, believing the survival of any religion is bound by the same constraints of any organism. In the chapter “The Secular Utility of Religion”, Sloan looks closely at 3 religions and breaks down their practices to their most biologically successful nature.

 

The Water Temple System of Bali     The people of the Water Temples do not have what most Americans would view as a modern religion or agricultural system. They worship a water goddess called Dewi Danu, and the high priest, called Jero Gde, is an earthly embodiment of the goddess. Over hundreds of years with no adaptation to modern machinery, the Bali have created a huge system of aqueducts to lead water to their rice paddies. At every new branch of the system, there is another subak (a small social unit) that operates in a democratic fashion and has its own deities, separate from the others but still under Dewi Danu. Their cultivation of rice has as much to do with the collective cooperation of the subaks as their individual group cooperation. Big issues like dam maintenance and pest control, along with water distribution and planting seasons are coordinated with the entire community. Problems are carefully inspected, analyzed, and solved by the priests and the subak heads. What surprised outsiders the most is that so much practical wisdom was embodied by their religion. When a researcher asked a subak head where the authority of Jero Gde came from, he replied, “Belief…. overflowing belief. Concerning Batur temple-- really that is the center, the origin of waters, you see. At this moment, the Jero Gde holds all this in his hands. At the temple of Lake Batur.” Their belief in Dewi Danu and her embodiment in Jero Gde is the entire basis of their complex water system. Without the goddess, there are no water temples or unifying basis for the Bali people, and without that, the complex and organized aqueduct system could not exist. The extravagant religion with many deities under the same goddess unifies the Bali under one of the most basic needs for human survival. Food.

Judaism

To say the Jewish people as a whole have had a tough go throughout history would be an understatement. The most interesting part about them though, has to be how long they have endured; their history is enormous, definitely one of the longest surviving religions. Wilson makes the point that what made the religion so successful is not much different than what might make a particular species successful. Judaism is a fairly strict religion that follows the rules given to them in the Hebrew Bible closely. These rules obviously make a group that follows them more functional and cooperational than one which does not. The Hebrew Bible is a little unclear on behavior towards outsiders, at one point saying to ‘not oppress the alien’ and giving instructions for war in another. On the whole, the Jewish people have remained a relatively genetically and religiously pure society. Their strength in kinship has been a great advantage over the past 2000 years, but also their greatest source of criticism. They have been attacked countless times, but the culture always prevails because of their powerful social identity. Judaism is not a religion that actively seeks members like others, and the practice of genetic isolation goes outside the basic principles of group selection, but this genetic isolation has made their brotherhood grow stronger in the literal and figurative sense, creating an altruistic attitude among the Jews as a community. The strict rules of Judaism have served as a secular utility for the Jews, making their culture withstand thousands of years with the same cultural identity.

 

The Early Christian Church

The strength of the early Christian Church stemmed from an exponential growth over a few hundred years. Scientists were baffled by this boom until Rodney Stark used comparative analysis of 22 Roman cities to examine the growth by measuring city size, distance along trade routes between Jerusalem and Rome, and the presence of a synagogue around the year 100 to measure Jewish influence. Stark took information that had been around all along and made sense of them. Contrary to what most people think about Rome, it was a hectic, violent, unwelcoming place; fires were frequent and the city was divided among many ethnic groups that didn’t get along. By the start of Christianity, Roman culture was inhospitable for reproduction, not in the sense that babies are bad, but the fact that it was a male dominated culture made the desire for male babies much higher than the poor female babies that were many times killed. The introduction of Christianity was attractive to many women in particular because of the rules governing reproduction and more importantly the greater freedom and status it offered. The Christian teachings also encouraged altruism towards all, consequentially increasing the life expectancy of the early Christians (if they didn’t die of the plague helping those afflicted). Christianity established a more free, less threatening Rome. While that is the nature of the religion, as a secular utility it increased reproduction and decreased violence. A heightened community and belongingness helped the people and the religion thrive.