Religion is good (broadly speaking)

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Via Over Coming Bias, The science of religion – Where angels no longer fear to tread:

It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston University’s School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. This illness is caused by low levels of a messenger molecule called dopamine in certain parts of the brain. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson’s had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the disease’s severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.

Any bets on what’s causing this? I suspect low dopamine individuals are less likely to be socially conforming, so the effect on religiosity might be weaker in a society where religion is less important than the United States. But nice to see some neurochemical work on this. In the future perhaps neuroscientists will be able to advise parents on the optimal mixture of the “soup” in their offsprings’ brains to increase the chances of religiosity, or decrease it? (Randall Parker has been talking about this for years)

But probably the most interesting reported research in the piece has to do with group selection & functionalism:

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes published in 1988 by Yaacov Oved of Tel Aviv University. Dr Sosis picked 200 of these for his analysis; 88 were religious and 112 were secular. Dr Oved’s data include the span of each commune’s existence and Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.

As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community-what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. Because a kibbutz, by its nature, depends on group co-operation, the principal difference between the two is the use of religious ritual. Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. It should, therefore, be possible to observe whether group rituals do improve co-operation, based on the behaviour of men and women.

To do so, Dr Sosis teamed up with Bradley Ruffle, an economist at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel. They devised a game to be played by two members of a kibbutz. This was a variant of what is known to economists as the common-pool-resource dilemma, which involves two people trying to divide a pot of money without knowing how much the other is asking for. In the version of the game devised by Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle, each participant was told that there was an envelope with 100 shekels in it (between 1/6th and 1/8th of normal monthly income). Both players could request money from the envelope, but if the sum of their requests exceeded its contents, neither got any cash. If, however, their request equalled, or was less than, the 100 shekels, not only did they keep the money, but the amount left was increased by 50% and split between them.

Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle picked the common-pool-resource dilemma because the communal lives of kibbutz members mean they often face similar dilemmas over things such as communal food, power and cars. The researchers’ hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened.

These sorts of data are relatively persuave to me about the functional power of religious institutions and social dynamics. Of course, apparent deviations from the trendline will be important to examine too. This is the closest thing to a website I could find for the Explaining Religion Project.

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21 Comments

  1. “In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson’s had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals,” 
     
    This looks to me like an elementary error. 
     
    Dopamine deficiency occurs in Parkinson’s disease and during treatment with ‘antipsychotic’ drugs such as haloperidol or chlorpromazine.  
     
    But this type of dopamine deficiency simply reduces almost all forms of observable behavior by causing general demotivation. Such people have blunted emotions and can’t be bothered to do anything much – they are asocial, apathetic, anhedonic (cannot experience pleasure), and do not speak much.  
     
    So people with Parkinson’s will have lower levels of virtually any measured behaviour – falling in love, friendship, working, reading etc etc…  
     
    Sounds to me as if these authors have assumed that a general reduction in behavioural expression is a specific reduction in religiosity.

  2. i would email the researchers that myself if i had noticed that….

  3. The late John Paul II had Parkinson’s.

  4. …but was the Pope a Catholic?

  5. BTW, 19th century ‘secular’ communes would probably be based on an idealistic political ideology, usually some form of socialism (e.g. Owenism). Such groups are notoriously liable to split up or collapse when their ideals are not realised. So this study may be measuring the fissile tendency of political groups, rather than something intrinsic to ‘secularism’.

  6. David B: 
     
    I think yes, he sh*t in the woods.

  7. Or is it that people who think in a religious context are more likely to be aware of the world outside of their selves, and so think in a way where short-chain self-referentialism is not encouraged? Makes it harder to get with mental dysfunction, at least.

  8. So what’s so “good” about it, then? — Creepy sound more like it.

  9. I’m not sure the conclusion that religion is good follows from this. Irrational belief can help strengthen in-group/out-group distinctions, and where those distinctions are strong, cooperation within the in-group tends to be stronger. That kind of cooperation is problematic, though; it rather often intensifies hostility and conflict with the out-group.

  10. What’s interesting to observe here is the “type” of religion being studied. If we choose Judaism or even Christianity, the religion preaches a lot ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’. It does not preach certain things that let’s say Buddhism preaches- peace with oneself and removal of earthly desires. 
    I am under the impression that dopamine is the reward molecule. Therefore, a religion heavy in right/wrong would definitely benefit from such a molecule. A religion that preaches self-acceptance would obviously work differently. This isn’t a question of socialization, it’s a question of what is being socialized. 
    By the way, Parkinson’s Disease runs in my family. I am culturally Jewish and most of my relatives are atheists. They chose to move to Moscow after 1917 and give up religiosity. Interesting…

  11. It does not preach certain things that let’s say Buddhism preaches- peace with oneself and removal of earthly desires. 
     
    You’re Jewish, but evidently you don’t know too much about Judaism.

  12. It’s true, though, that Buddhism comes at that subject from a different angle.

  13. It’s true, though, that Buddhism comes at that subject from a different angle. 
     
    that’s the official line, especially the sorts of buddhism which attracts western yuppies. but popular buddhism explores the full sample space of magic to fire & brimstone. e.g., therevada buddhist peasants who explain that their muslim fishermen neighbors were swept away by the 2004 tsunami because they did not believe in the buddha….

  14. There is an overlap between the symptoms of ADHD/ADD and Parkinson’s and for both the dopaminageric system has been implicated in the underlying dysfunction. It would be interesting to see if there are corresponding low levels of religousity in the ADD subpopulation. Anecdotally, my father and I both have ADD and are atheistic in orientation but then that might as easily be related to us having high levels of education and above average IQ.

  15. “Or is it that people who think in a religious context are more likely to be aware of the world outside of their selves, and so think in a way where short-chain self-referentialism is not encouraged? Makes it harder to get with mental dysfunction, at least.” 
     
    well my favorite religion-founder always said, “There is no prison but the prison of self”. I think even atheists would do well to keep that in mind, in their scientific efforts. Any strong belief has the power to play tricks with the mind in a trompe d’oiel.  
     
    Religious fanatics are very self orientated–they may blow themSELVES up physically or metaphorically in the service of what they think is “religion”, in the quest of glory for themSELVES even though the official teachings of that same religion would condemn them to further torment for that action. Not that that matters to their victims. With more normal people though, a focus on what is outside of oneself usually leads to a healthier mentality as long as it doesn’t go to an extreme.

  16. Non-religious fanatics have a way of blowing themselves up (and others alongside) too. So maybe the problem (if problem there be) isn’t religion, it’s fanaticism?  
     
    As for religion automatically having to do with irrationality and willed-belief … Well, isn’t that a little … dismissive, or something. For instance, I’m sympathetic to Buddhism and Vedanta not because they force me to believe in shit there’s no real evidence for, but because they do a far better job of accounting for and describing life as I’ve found it to be than any other explanatory/descriptive system has, including science. In other words: On the evidence I have — and not thanks to any delusions or fantasies of mine, or anyone else’s — Buddhism and Vedanta do a heck of a job of accounting for things. So tagging along (in, I suppose, my semi-yuppie, semi-boho way) with Buddhism and Vedanta strikes me as a completely rational way of proceeding.

  17. High levels of dopamine are correlated with Schizophrenia. No offense to religious people but it makes sense. 
     
    1. Delusions of Grandeur 
    2. Hallucinations 
    3. Feeling of persecution 
    4. Generalized psychotic affectation.

  18. By the way, Parkinson’s Disease runs in my family. I am culturally Jewish and most of my relatives are atheists. They chose to move to Moscow after 1917 and give up religiosity. 
     
    Hmm, depending on how they came at it and what their expectations were, they simply abandoned spiritual religion for a materialist one. Not that all socialist thinking can be mapped so easily onto religious beliefs but the one that came up in Moscow surely did.

  19. “So maybe the problem (if problem there be) isn’t religion, it’s fanaticism?” 
     
    yes, that is true imho.

  20. I was going to mention the schizophrenia connection as well. Unaffected siblings of people with schizophrenia are much more likely to have a schizotypal personality, which is manifested by a preoccupation with the occult, religion, and magic (religion IS magical thinking!).

  21. @K.A. 
     
    However people who are schizotypal, or indeed actually schizophrenic, tend to fit BGC’s description of “asocial, apathetic, anhedonic (cannot experience pleasure), and do not speak much”. These are what are called the “negative symptoms” of schizophrenia. The purely negative symptom analogue of schizotypal personality disorder is schizoid personality disorder which some have also linked to relatives of schizophrenics.

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