Friday, October 31, 2008

Most Atheists are Wrong: Religion doesn't cause all violence (conclusion)

This continues yesterday's blog, in which I explained how a memetic viewpoint clarifies that most morals originate with our instincts, rather than from religious inspiration or philosophical enquiry.

A constant state of tribal fighting, murders, skirmishes, and outright warfare is pretty much the natural state of human beings (where "natural" means what was common over the last few hundred thousand years as humans evolved to our modern form). Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, describes his experience a typical such tribe, the Fayu of New Guinea, who were in a constant "kaleidoscopically changing pattern of war and shifting alliances with all neighboring hamlets..." While in New Guinea, he witnessed an anthropologist interview women about their husbands:
Woman after woman, when asked to name her husband, named several sequential husbands who had died violent deaths. A typical answer went like this: "My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed by the brother of my second husband..." Such biographies prove common for so-called gentle tribespeople...

Guns, Germs, and Steel, p 277, copyright © Jared Diamond, 1999
When we discover a behavioral pattern that spans the globe, it's a good bet that our instincts are running the show. Adding to the weight of this theory, anthropologists also find similar behavior in the other great apes that form bands. Although this is not a scientific proof by any stretch of the imagination, I think most anthropologists and behavioral scientists would agree that this pattern of tribal war and murder reflects our instincts.

Thus, we find two key points about religion and morality:
  • Most of our morals are really memes that express, in language, knowledge that is hard-wired into our brains, put there by evolution to help us survive.
  • Humans are naturally warlike and murderous, again, because it is behavior that helps us survive and procreate.
Yesterday we used the examples of infidelity and child abuse to illustrate how memes that match our instincts are far more likely to survive than memes that are contrary to our instincts. Now we can see that religious memes that encourage warlike behavior are simply reflections of our human instincts. It is our instincts that have caused us to shape religions that advocate warlike behavior.

The logical conclusion from all this is that religion is the "victim" of our instincts. Humans are just doing what we've always done: wage war and murder each other. Modern evolution has equipped us with language, and the "ideosphere" (the meme ecosphere) has evolved memes that support this aggresive behavior.

Tomorrow: Why this is all wrong – religion really does cause harm.


  1. Uh.. most atheists? How many of them, exactly, say that religion causes all violence? Even if the article itself is excellent, you are risking discrediting yourself by making such a vacuous claim.

  2. Anonymous - be careful not to read more into this than is intended. This is an opinion piece, not a scientific paper. As such, it is full of generalizations and unsubstantiated assertions. My goal is to get you thinking about the topic I raised, not to present an ironclad proof. Did it make sense to you? Did it make you think? Did it make you reevaluate your ideas about the origin of morals and war? Even if you disagree with my premise, I hope you enjoyed the two essays.

    You're right that "most atheists" is perhaps too general, or at least unproved, but I wouldn't call it "vacuous," which suggests I didn't think about the topic. I did, and for brevity, that's the term I selected. I believe it's true, though, that most atheists believe religion causes more harm than good.

  3. A very interesting post, and something I have been wondering for sometime too. You may or may not be aware that I work in mental health. For the past 40 years there has been a drive in therapeutic circles towards a humanistic view of clients, one that assumes that people are basically 'good'.
    I have struggled with this viewpoint. For me 'Good' is relative and a somewhat culturally based construction.
    I personally take the view that humans are animals that have an evolved psychology. Most of us conform to societal norms because it makes good evolutionary sense.
    However, we know through both experience and research that humans will willingly torture other humans, that they will often refuse to aid another person in distress, that we often revert to 'herd' mentality.
    If you'd like to see examples of this then I will gladly post up some links on my own blog.

  4. WC - I would very much like to read more about how the "Humanist" viewpoint is used in the field of mental health. Although my main focus has been on religion, anyone who studies evolution has ask the question, How much of our behavior is instinctive? It's my firm belief that we are much closer to our animal cousins than we'd like to believe, and that our ethic/morality are a pretty thin veneer on our animal nature.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.