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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.

 

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Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  Or if you're a Harry Potter fan was it the Phoenix or the flame? That is the question that anthropologist Pascal Boyer brings forth in his essay titled Religion: Bound to believe? However, rather than dealing with poultry origins he seems to be more curious about religion and its origins in our culture.  Boyer wants to find out if "religion [is] an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution" and though it would be great to have one single answer it appears to be a question that can be argued in many different ways.

Pascal Boyer is a french anthropologist who continues his work today as a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and has published multiple books, including  Religion Explained (2001), and The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994).  He studied anthropology at the University of Paris and at Cambridge, and was a professor at Cambridge, San Diego, Lyon and Santa Barbara before finally settling in St. Louis Missouri, where he continues to teach anthropology and psychology today.

 

Religion and Its' Contributing Factors

Boyer's research mainly discusses why cultures have religious beliefs, and why it continues to be such a popular topic of conversation and controversy among groups.  He discusses how findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology all contribute to ours and/or other culture's basis of religion.

  • Cognitive Psychology: scientific study of mind and mental function including learning, memory, attention, perception, reasoning, language, etc.
  • Neuroscience: sciences which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
  • Cultural Anthropology: branch of anthropology that deals with human culture and society
  • Archaeology: study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains

Religious Theories

So these are some of the contributing factors behind our religious ideas, but what  are some of the actual beliefs people hold on the topic? Due to the many perceptions of religion by different groups in society, multiple theories have surfaced. Many religious people do not want religion to be dissected and explained through science, because they feel as though it will lose its power if science is able to explain it.  On the other hand, certain scientists believe that religion is childish or make-believe, and so they disregard it and view it as unimportant.

What we have come to realize is that religion should not be dissected or examined too closely by science.  Religion is represented by the combination of the following practices: Ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.

  • Ritual: established or prescribed procedure for religion or another rite
  • Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct
  • Metaphysics: branch of psychology that treats of first principles, including ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology
  • Social Identity: one's sense of self  as a member of a social group (or groups)

 

The Social Identity Theory is a popular idea today,because everyone can relate to it.  Henri Tajfel believed that groups that we belong to are important because they give us pride and boost our self esteem.  Here at the University of Alabama we all know what it is like to have a sense of social identity, because anytime anyone says anything about our school we can't help but be proud to say "Roll Tide".  As humans we want to feel like we belong and like we are a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.  However, like in any social group, at Alabama we discriminate and stereotype those who are not a part of the Crimson Tide.  For instance, anytime we see someone with an Auburn license plate, or an Auburn sweatshirt on we automatically assume that said Auburn fan is stupid... or redneck... or inbred, etc. (just a few examples).  What Henry Tajfel believed was that this is a normal part of social identity: separating the "us" from the "them".  This kind of separation increases our pride in our own social group, and gives one a sense of belonging.

Religion As We Grow

Our view of religion as we grow older can be compared to our view of Santa as we were kids.  Growing up your parents would always tell you that you had to be good because Santa was watching, and if you weren't good you'd end up with coal in your stocking.  Therefore we would keep track of the things we did right and wrong because we thought that Santa only cared about acts that involved morality.  Boyer explains that our thought processes with religion are very similar.  We tend to pray and ask for God's forgiveness when we have done something wrong because we believe God knows when those events occur, yet we don't concern ourselves with God's opinion on random events in our day to day lives that don't actually have anything to do with morality. This is just one of the things about humans that make us unique to other species:  our sense and understanding about morality.

Another unique trait among humans is our ability to form bonds with large groups of people with which we have no relation to whatsoever.  Our ability to form and maintain these bonds affect our religious beliefs.  It all can be linked back to the social identity theory, because part of being involved with organized religion is submitting to one groups sets of certain beliefs, while completely disregarding another group's.  This signals that one is ready to fully submit to a group and in return this person can now include religion as a part of their social identity.

In Conclusion

Poyer is able to express many ideas on humans and how religion came to be.  His study of our cognitive traits have led to many significant theories and ideas about how religion and humans have intertwining histories and have evolved together through time.  So I suppose the question of "Which came first?" isn't as important as we make it seem.  The question I would like to pose is how has the development of religion throughout or evolution made us better over time?  Has it? Do we want to know the answer? So while we never really decided if one came before the other, it seems as though a continued growth and understanding of how religion and evolution have developed over time is what is most important. After all, a circle has no beginning, right?