July 07, 2010
The origin of religion-1: Superstitions
I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste. As Richard Dawkins says:
As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.
Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.
Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion.
So with all these disadvantages, and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation.
Since religious beliefs are supported by no empirical evidence, one has to look for other reasons to explain both their origin and continuation, and a good place to start is with superstitions, which are also irrational and yet they too are durable beliefs that can grab hold of people, spread widely quickly, and new ones appear all the time. So studying the origins of superstitions may give us clues as to the origin of religion.
Before every presidential election, for example, you find the media paying attention to some 'predictor' of the outcome. They will point to some state or county or precinct that has in the past always had a majority for the winning candidate and then focus on what that indicator might predict for the current contest. Sometimes the 'predictors' are something as unrelated as the winning team in the Super Bowl or stock market indices. Of course, rational people are aware that there can be no causal connection between the two events.
It is always possible to find, after the fact, some indicator that seems to correlate with some major event. For example, suppose I tell you that you should give me all your money to invest because I have an uncanny knack of predicting whether a given stock will go up or down the next day. You naturally will want some evidence of my predictive power before you give me your money. If I guarantee to do it correctly four times in a row, would you be willing to give me your money to invest? If you say yes, you are a sucker. The reason is that all I need is 16 people to agree to the same deal, each of whom does not know about the other 15. Then I give 8 of them a prediction that the stock will go up the next day and 8 that the stock will go down. I then forget about the eight who got the wrong prediction, and give four of the others the prediction that it will again go up, and the other four that it will go down. The next time, I deal with only the four who got both earlier predictions right and give two up and two down. This leaves me with two who got all three right predictions. I repeat the process and of those two, I will finally end up with one person who got all four predictions right and is now a believer that I have this amazing skill at picking stocks.
It is because of this tendency of people to not use their reasoning abilities or seek underlying mechanisms that causes superstitions to originate and conmen to flourish. When something unexpectedly good (or bad) happens, people tend to remember some of the circumstances surrounding that event. Then if another similar good (or bad) event occurs, and they recall that both occasions had some common feature, then that feature can become seen as an omen, as a good or bad luck talisman. Thus superstitious people end up wearing 'lucky' clothes or carrying some 'lucky' items or doing some ritual before an important event, based on whatever it was that happened to catch their notice. Athletes and sports fans can carry this to ridiculous extremes. Faith healers particularly exploit this to con people because people will note and remember their few alleged successes and ignore the vast number of failures.
People seem to be very susceptible to this kind of magical thinking. The latest superstition is the 'psychic octopus' in Germany that has apparently picked the winner in every match involving Germany in the current soccer World Cup. (It predicted that Germany will lose to Spain today.) The need of people to seek out patterns and correlations, and think that they arise out of some underlying causal agency, seems to be innate. Because of it, it is extremely easy for superstitions to originate and for crooks to scam people into thinking that they have secret powers.
This tendency to ascribe causal relationships, and even a causal agency, to unrelated events is, as we will see in the next post, not simply a cultural trait developed in the last few thousand years in humans. It goes back quite far.
Next: The power of religion and other superstitions.
POST SCRIPT: Last word on flags
Another reader also reminded me of this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags.