Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Persistence of Belief, Part IV: Religion is Good for Us

I noted in an earlier post that at least three streams of thought attempt to account for the persistence of belief and religion  ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"). One, which is associated with cognitive scientists of religion, argues that religion is “natural” in the sense that it is an accidental byproduct of a separate (but adaptive) evolutionary process ("The Persistence of Belief, Part II: Religion is a Natural Accident"). A second, which draws primarily on the work of group or cultural evolutionists who contend that religion, or at least some forms of it, have helped human groups to adapt to various evolutionary pressures ("The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group"). And a third, which I discuss here, reflects the efforts of philosopher Stephen Asma, who argues that religion persists because it is good for us because it helps us manage and regulate our emotions.

Religion is Good for Us

Like many of his fellow agnostics, the philosopher Stephen Asma has frequently poked fun at religion and its adherents. One day, however, after “pompously lecturing a class of undergraduates about the incoherence of monotheism,” he was approached by a student whose older brother had been stabbed to death and the perpetrator never caught. He told him “that his mother went insane for a while afterward, and would have been institutionalized if it were not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again.” She believed that she would be reunited with him in the afterlife where “she stressed [that] his body would be made whole again.” Put simply, her religious beliefs “dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to keep raising her other two children—[Asma’s] student and his sister.” As Asma tells it, his student’s story “slowly unraveled [his] convictions and assumptions about religion,” and combined with his own experiences, plus time spent with Buddhists in Cambodia, he gained a new respect for religion although he remains an agnostic:
No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. But the irrational hope that she would see her murdered son again sustained her… If this emotionally grounded belief gave her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, then we can envision a selective pressure for such emotional beliefs at the individual and kin levels of natural selection.
Asma believes that religion has helped and continues to help us manage our emotional lives. He believes it “is better at describing and managing the emotional life, and it is an equal player in the adaptive [evolutionary] game.” He acknowledges that some may object since religion “can’t be true,” but he believes that misses the point. “Most religious beliefs are not true,” he argues. “But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false… An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory… Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond to empirical facts, a ‘healthy emotion’ might be one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.”

Asma does not dismiss the harm that religion can cause. He readily concedes there's “good reason to criticize Christian homophobia... or Islamic adultery laws... because the condemnations and punishments are too severe and many lives have ruined by overzealous morality hygiene. Similarly, he notes that extremist religious groups that “obsess on an afterlife paradise” have caused “much misery” because they “devalue the flesh and blood of this world.” Nevertheless, he argues that the vast majority of mainstream religious people balance their theological beliefs with healthy doses of pragmatism and this-worldly priorities; congregations like Westboro Baptist Church may attract headlines, but there is a reason why it has few adherents.

Asma identifies several ways in which religion serves as an emotional management system: coping with grief, the practice of forgiveness, cultivating peace of mind, encouraging ethical restraint, promoting a sense of awe, offering opportunities for play, directing sexual drives in prosocial ways, and directing fear and rage in beneficial ways. The first, coping, has long been recognized as an important function played by religion, and it is often used by many to explain religious belief away. The other functions Asma identifies, however, confer (often adaptive) benefits that are seldom recognized or discussed. Asma briefly summarizes his argument for religion's adaptive value is captured in this brief video:

And the following table provides an overview of the five functions or ways that religion helps manage our emotional system.

Since Asma's perspective suggests that religion's persistence is more than simply an accident of evolutionary processes, one could consider it friendly to religious belief (although Asma remains n agnostic). Of course, the most parsimonious explanation is that our evolutionary ancestors were simply responding to a genuine experience of the supernatural, but such an argument doesn't typically pass muster as "scientific." Interestingly, though, Asma's discussion of "awe" and "joy" comes close to doing just that.

Appendix: Details of Why Asma Believes Religion is Good for Us

For those who are interested, a more detailed discussion of Asma's perspective can be found below.

Coping with Grief and Sorrow

Asma begins by exploring how faith helps us cope with grief. His central argument is that rationality does not help the grieving parent or child, or at least not most grieving parents or children, and religious belief is especially well-equipped for offering just that. In particular, he identifies five ways in which religion cope with sorrow. One is what he calls the placebo effect. Placebos, or course, are harmless pills or procedures prescribed for their psychological, rather than physiological, benefits. Asma notes that placebos can have surprisingly powerful effects, and he argues that religious liturgies, such as the Roman Catholic funeral rite, can help improve the overall health and subjective well-being of those who believe and participate in them. “Remarkably, several studies have found that faithful believers live longer and healthier than skeptics.” A second way that religion manages grief according to Asma are the social traditions and customs connected to these liturgies. Asma concedes that religion hasn't cornered the market on hugging, singing, or telling stories, but it has formally organized these “grief-consoling strategies” far more effectively than has secular culture.

A third way is what Asma calls “existential debt.” Although most people living in the West think of themselves as individuals first and members of a community second, Asma notes that religious rituals help remind us that “even the most independent among us are usually tied in a web of social relations that make us who we are... Long after your parents have died, for example, religion helps you memorialize them and acknowledge your existential debt to them.” A fourth way that religion helps is through “magical consolation,” such as the belief that we have a soul that continues on beyond death. One can find such beliefs in most religions, and he believes they can and do give “hope to the hopeless,” and he disagrees with those who see this as a form of cowardice.

The fifth and final way Asma identifies is that religion helps us reappraise grief and sorrow. He notes that part of our ability to cope lies in “our sense of power and agency.” Noting that there are numerous sources of power than can increase our ability to cope when disaster strikes, Asma argues that believing that God is on your side is an extremely powerful one. 

Asma is quick to point out that he is not so naïve that he is unaware that religion can lead people to see their troubles in a negative light, but he argues that such beliefs are found primarily in “extremist traditions” rather than among “mainstream stakeholders who are just trying to make it through the daily travails of life.” Moreover, he doubts that a state possesses the ability to manage sorrow as successfully as most religious traditions. He notes that China under Mao attempted to this. It discouraged traditional religious funerals, argued that cemeteries squandered farm land (cremation was required), and that coffins wasted a valuable resource. However, much like the Soviet Union, it failed to assuage the deepest longings of human life.

Forgiving and Resetting

Asma next turns to the important role that forgiveness plays in the lives of individuals and groups. Asma believes that a primary function of forgiveness is to knit communities back together. They cannot survive for long without rituals for reintegrating individuals who have harmed their group in some way. Not all can be brought back in, of course. Sometimes the harm inflicted is so great that it is impossible. However, some can, and most religions offer resources for doing so. Rituals of confession are one example, but so are the stories that various religious traditions tell about themselves, such as parable of the Prodigal son in Christianity and the tale of the Golden Deer found in Buddhism’s Jataka Tales.

Asma also stresses the importance of the forgiveness at the individual (psychological) level. In doing so he focuses more on individuals who have been hurt by someone else’s actions than on the offenders. Not that being relieved of feelings of shame and/or guilt through absolution is not psychologically beneficial. It is, but it is also psychologically beneficial for people who have been hurt to let go of their anger so that they do not become consumed by hate. Forgiveness helps the offended move on, regardless of whether those who hurt them accepts it or not. For evidence, he points to the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which has run numerous workshops for people who have suffered grievous injuries. It has “worked with mothers from both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict who have lost sons, and found that forgiveness exercises and therapies reduced reported stress levels by 50 percent, reduced reported depression by 40 percent, and reduced reported anger by 23 percent.”

Asma also notes that the evidence suggests people of faith are much more likely to forgive than are others, even in extreme cases. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, they “tended to report more desire to forgive, or perhaps could not bring themselves to reject the value of forgiveness, even in the face of a terrorist attack.”

This is not to suggest that Asma believes all sins are forgivable or even should be. Some offenses are difficult if not impossible to absolve, and Asma claims that it is not his place to lecture others about the benefits of forgiveness, and he acknowledges that “anger and outrage” can sometimes bring about much needed “social and legal policy changes” (Asma 2018:92). Nevertheless, he contends that when it is possible to forgive, its benefits at both the personal and societal level of incontestable.

Peace of Mind and Ethical Restraint

According to Asma, another benefit conferred by religious faith is mental discipline. He notes that contemplative practices found in most religious traditions, such as prayer and meditation, help “decrease stress and increase equanimity,” as well as manage “temptation and egoism” (Asma 2018:124). While acknowledging that some forms of contemplation can lead to an unhealthy detachment from the world, Asma believes that most of the time it is good for us. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, “preventing rumination from spiraling into anxiety is accomplished by the use of lectio divina, a Benedictine technique of slow scripture reading and contemplation. Similarly in Buddhist meditation, the mind is focused (during the first step of mindfulness) on a devotional object, or a candle, or one’s breath. The goal in these traditions is to quiet the mind.”

But it is more than just calming the mind. The benefits conferred by religion also “come from seeing the world in a specific way, not just from making the mind a better formal processor,” and religion's ability to calm the mind may be more important now than ever before since “we may be living in the most distracting era in human history.” Contemporary culture may seek to distract us, but amidst all the noise, we can still cultivate a quiet mind, and religion, according to Asma, “provides structures that foster such cultivation.”

Asma also believes that disciplining the mind also helps us control our more destructive impulses, and this, in turn, enhances the evolutionary adaptability of social groups. Asma identifies two threats to the social cohesion of kinship groups: hedonism and non-kin competition. With regards to the former, he argues that religion "helps manage emotions and desires such that families can be successful units... Someone who loves her family will be a better protector and provider than someone who merely recognizes a cost-benefit advantage to familial cooperation. Evolution selects for emotional equipment, as well as cognitive and physical equipment."

Asma frames the threat of non-kin competition to social cohesion in terms of free-riding. Why should we set aside our own desire and the needs of our immediate families to help out people we do not know? Because, “urban living... requires some modification of our natural competitive urges to pursue the immediate benefits for our family alone. Institutions, such as church, law, education, or property rights become ways to protect humans from their own short-sighted cravings." Religion “works” because it makes us subject “to an invisible police force, such as karma or divine justice.” As I have previously posted (""), experimental and empirical research confirms this. People are more likely to act in prosocial ways when they believe in a God or divine being who will punish them if they misbehave.

Awe, Joy, and Play

Next, Asma highlights how religion can enhance various positive emotions—in particular, awe, joy, and play—that confer an adaptive value. Asma begins by describing how religion helps give us a sense of wonder and awe, what he calls transcendental everydayness. This involves transcending our typical egoistical perspective and seeing the world in a new way, and he argues that religion helps provide us with such an “unselfish perspective, this sense of awe and reverence.”

Closely related to this is how religion can convey a sense of “cosmic joy” rather than simply “joy.” According to Asma, religions offer adherents a sense of purpose and meaning, whether it is a belief “that all things are connected or that a Divine Being has a plan” for their lives... Cosmic joy is a one-of-a-kind type of elation (sui generis) because it marks the entirety of reality and secondly it comes with concepts of purpose or meaning.”

Asma also believes that religion can contribute to a sense of play, which helps open ourselves up to the world around us, a process that the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, calls “broadening,” and it is from this that we acquire new “resources,” such as friendships, skills, and altered understandings of ourselves and others, which help us make our way in the world. Moreover, play contributes positively to our mental health and helps us learn how to cooperate with others, such as organizing activities, settling disputes, avoiding danger, dealing with injuries, and the fair allocation of valued goods, all of which suggests that it helps us adapt to evolutionary pressures.

Finally, Asma believes that religion can help harness lust. He argues that he turns it from a potential liability (from a cultural evolutionary perspective) into an asset. People often criticize religion for the strictures it places on sexual behavior, and he readily admits “there is good reason to criticize Christian homophobia… or Islamic adultery laws, because the condemnations and punishments are too severe and many lives have been ruined by overzealous moral hygiene.” Nevertheless, he notes that "constrained sexuality has been an important ingredient in the development of successful cooperative collectives":
For human beings, religion became the central cultural mechanism that directed lust, and other emotions, into adaptive behaviors. We are the most cooperative primate, and that cooperation is possible, in part, because sexual desire is managed—it does not (usually) disrupt our network of social allies... it seeks--for example, to convert the lothario into the family man. The rigidity and zealotry of sexual management is related to the difficulty of the task—sexual desire is incredibly strong and leads many otherwise clear-thinking people into behaviors that destroy the nuclear family's cooperative alliance. It’s not trivial that the Greeks considered erotic desire to be a form of madness.
Fear and Rage

Although it is currently unfashionable to write positively about fear and rage, Asma argues that from an evolutionary standpoint, both can be adaptive. Whether we want to admit it or not, it is to our advantage to know when to flee or fight back. Not knowing when we face a real threat to our well-being tends to be detrimental to our long term well-being. And in this respect, Asma argues that religion can play a positive role.

Asma begins by noting that religious beliefs and rituals can help us manage fear when were are facing death, danger, and the unknown. Fear of death is perhaps the most obvious, and there is little denying that religion can be a “powerful analgesic,” and as Asma notes studies have found a positive correlation between religious belief and death, as well as support for the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.

When it comes to facing danger, Asma believes that religion offers the faithful a measure of confidence because of their belief that God or the gods “have their back.” He tells how he “met a former Khmer soldier who assured [him] that his special Buddha amulet—still worn around his neck—allowed him to survive many battles with Vietnamese enemies. The amulet, he said, prevented bullets from piercing his body.” Although Asma found this claim dubious, he has “no doubt that his religious confidence helped him somewhat. Running at an enemy that is trying to kill you is a necessary part of war, and how you feel about it shapes how well you do it.”

In terms of the unknown, Asma notes that “philosophers and anthropologists long have recognized that religion explains the unexplainable.” And while critics often dismiss religious explanations for inexplicable phenomena as “magical thinking, because naturalistic explanations would better suffice,... on many pressing questions (e.g., the origins of the universe, or the loss of a child to cancer) there are no naturalistic explanations that satisfy—either because the mechanical explanation is still just a promissory note, or because the ‘how’ answer fails to address the ‘why’ question.

Asma also argues that religious beliefs not only helps believers face fear, it also helps them to know when to fight back. Religious stories, symbols, and rituals can be quite effective at redirecting fear outward at enemies threatening a group’s existence. Asma acknowledges that religiously-motivated violence has often wreaked untold and unnecessary damage. However, "it is easy to forget that sometimes there really are foreign hordes at the gate. Sometimes real enemies want your destruction and want what you have... Sometimes enemies must be fought and stopped, and religion has played a role in mobilizing loose collaborators into a unified defense front."

Closely related to all of this is rage, which is closely related to humiliation, indignation, and notions of justice or fairness. One often gets angry when they feel they have been wronged, but that does not always give way to rage, and Asma is somewhat unique in that he does not believe rage should always be tamed. He notes that Aristotle saw rage as central to the virtuous life, as long as it “provided one was angry at the right person, about the right thing, for the right amount of time, in the right measure, and for the right purpose.” And this is where religion comes into play. It can minimize (down-regulate) rage’s effects by adopting a long-term perspective, which allows adherents to cool-off:
When we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, or despair, or fear, the Buddha asks us to think about the impermanence of our problems and ourselves. Similarly, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius asks us to contemplate the human drama of families, cities, and even nations that lived hundreds of years ago. They all did as we do. They married, worked jobs, had children, loved and lost, felt great joys, killed each other, and engaged in every other emotional human endeavor. But, as Aurelius reminds us, “of all that life, not a trace survives today.” It will be no different with the dramas of our own generation.
Asma, however, is also keen to highlight the evolutionary advantages of unleashed rage. Although he believes that we should “strive for tolerance, openness, and compassionate acceptance, [we] shouldn’t be naive about it.” And religion can help us avoid evolutionary maladaptive naiveté.

In closing, he acknowledges that religion has to potential to transform fear and rage such that they become a threat to a group and a society’s well-being. Nevertheless, he argues that most people of faith are not extremists because “life keeps getting in the way... It is a rare personality than can shut out the social world of family and friendship, and work, and aging, and sickness, and love.” Put simply, the day-to-day exigencies that so many of us complain about are primary factors as to why most religious believers benefit rather than take away from the groups in which they are embedded.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The 12 Days of Christmas Begin Today (or Tomorrow)

This is my annual reminder that the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days prior to (and including) Christmas Day, but the 12 days after, running from either December 25th to January 5th or from December 26th to January 6th, depending to which tradition one follows. Either way, the 12 days end on Epiphany (January 6th), which is when the wise men present gifts to the infant Jesus, he may have been as old as 2-years when they finally track him down.

Needless to say, when most of us think about "The 12 Days of Christmas," we're thinking about the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but's fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "strongly discouraged" in England (1558-1829): 
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God 
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God 
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God 
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13) 
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation 
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes 
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments 
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples 
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly take on the song's origins (but far less entertaining), see the Wikipedia article.

Note: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days -- one for the first day, three (1 + 2) for the second, six (1 + 2 + 3) for the third, and so on -- you get 364, which is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas. I learned this from watching a Hallmark movie (yes, I confess that I watch Hallmark Christmas movies).

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group

Previously ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"), I noted that at least three streams of thought inform the current debate about why belief and religion persist. I have already discussed how some believe that religion is an accidental byproduct of a separate (but adaptive) evolutionary process ("The Persistence of Belief, Part II: Religion is a Natural Accident"). In this post, I focus on the work of cultural evolutionists who argue that religion persists because it has helped human groups adapt to various evolutionary pressures. In a future post, I explore the argument that religion persists because it helps us manage and regulate our emotions ("The Persistence of Belief, Part IV: Religion is Good for Us").

Religion is Good for the Group

Lying at the heart of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the argument that variation among biological traits (phenotypic variation) confers different rates of survival and reproduction within the environment in which a particular species exists (differential fitness) and since some traits can be passed from generation to generation (fitness heritability), those associated with greater fitness are more likely to be passed down than those that are not. Beginning in the 1960s, a consensus developed among evolutionists that selection occurs only at the individual level. Although they conceded that selection at the group level was possible, they believed it unlikely, and cautioned against offering a group level explanation when an individual one would do just fine.

Curiously, though, not only did Darwin believe that group selection was possible, he also thought it likely:
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same circumstances, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other… The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience… is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson was one of the few who agreed and spent most of his professional life attempting establish that group selection can and has occurred. He believes that group selection occurs when “selection within groups is suppressed,” and selection between groups becomes “the primary evolutionary force," which can happen when groups function like a single organism or unit. How can functioning as a single organism favor the survival of some groups over others? Back in 2007 the journalist, Robin Henig, nicely summarized Wilson’s perspective:
Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?
To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.
When it comes to human groups, Wilson argues they are more likely to survive if their members adhere to a set of norms that organize them in such a way that practices that are considered morally right align with the group’s welfare and those that are considered morally wrong align with those that detract from it. Put differently, human groups whose collective morality encourages members to engage in pro-social behaviors will enjoy a higher level of “fitness” than will groups whose collective morality does not, all else being equal. Wilson is not the first to make this argument. That honor again belongs to Darwin:
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.
The problem, of course, is that “on an individual level, to make sacrifices for the benefit of another individual is a disadvantage in terms of one’s own reproductive success," and it is here that Wilson believes religion plays a role. He argues that religious beliefs can incentivize people to sacrifice some pleasures for the good of the group. Wilson believes that secular institutions are incapable of operating with the same efficiency because they lack low-cost enforcement mechanisms, such as supernatural surveillance and divine punishment. And he is quick to point out that it doesn't matter whether God (or another supernatural force) actually exists. All that matters is for a particular human group to believe that one does and that this deity not only places demands on them but will punish them if they fail to do so.

For a number of years, Wilson was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. Folks like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others were (and still are) highly critical of his perspective. Nevertheless, it has slowly gained support and now influences the work of many others, such as the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the biologist Peter Richerson and his frequent co-author, the anthropologist Robert Boyd, the psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, and the anthropologist Joseph Henrich. Henrich in particular, has drawn on experimental and empirical research to expand and refine Wilson’s insights in order to construct a theory that seeks to explain the wide-spread persistence of prosocial religions, that is, religions whose beliefs and practices promote wide-spread cooperation. As Norenzayan et al. explain:
[The] cultural evolutionary process selects for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that (1) reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups; (2) sustain and increase group solidarity; and (3) facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures. This success can then lead to the differential spread of particular religious elements, as more successful groups are copied by less successful groups, experience physical or cultural immigration, expand demographically through higher rates of reproduction, or expand through conquest and assimilation. It was this cultural evolutionary process that increasingly intertwined the “supernatural” with the “moral” and the “prosocial.”
Moreover, while cultural evolution can select for non-religious cultural practices, religions that promote such beliefs and practices are particularly well-positioned to benefit from the process. A key reason is that many include a belief in “Big Gods,” that is, “powerful, morally concerned deities who… monitor human behavior.” In fact, anthropological, archeological, and historical evidence indicates that as we move from a relatively small scale societies to larger, more complex ones, Big Gods become more common, morality and supernatural beliefs become more systematic, related rituals become increasingly organized and regular, supernatural punishments increasingly focus on violations that benefit the group, and the scope of supernatural rewards and punishments related to key social norms grow (e.g., heaven, hell, salvation, and karma) (Details on their perspective appear in the "appendix" below).


In short, the “adaptive story” told by cultural evolutionists is not only plausible but compelling, and as we have seen, it enjoys considerable empirical support. The following graph captures the essence of this perspective:

On the surface, this perspective appears friendly to religious belief. After all, it argues that human groups vary in terms of their moral systems (“phenotypic” variation) with some being more adaptive in terms of natural selection than others (differential fitness), meaning that moral systems with higher fitness are more likely to be passed down to subsequent generations (fitness heritability). Add to this the fact that moral systems grounded in religious beliefs tend to exhibit higher fitness levels than secular ones, and it is not difficult to take the additional step of seeing a divine hand at work in the background. Wilson does not take such a step (he considers himself an atheist), and there are undoubtedly some who would argue that religion cannot possibly be true because its persistence can be explained solely in terms of natural processes. But, as I noted in an earlier post, "all beliefs have a causal explanation," including atheistic ones, and no explanation “can settle the question of whether [a particular] belief is true or not.”

Appendix: Details of Cultural Evolution

As noted above, cultural evolutionists argue that evolution selects for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that (1) reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups (i.e., intragroup cooperation); (2) sustain and increase group solidarity; and (3) facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures (intergroup competition). This can then lead to the differential spread of particular religious elements, as more successful groups are copied by less successful groups, experience physical or cultural immigration, expand demographically through higher rates of reproduction, or expand through conquest and assimilation.

Religion and Intragroup Cooperation

Substantial evidence has been found that a positive association between religion and within-group prosociality exists. For example, available evidence exists that prosocial religions cultivate processes that encourage people suppress selfish pursuits in the interest of the group and promote self-control which is strongly associated with prosocial behavior. And social scientists have long documented the positive link between religiosity, charity, and volunteerism for both religious and secular causes.

Because much of this research is limited to the U.S. and relies on self-reports, Henrich and his colleagues conducted experimental studies that found a positive association between adherence to Islam or Christianity and prosocial behavior in fifteen different societies. Other experiments that primed participants with religious thoughts have shown that “religious reminders reduce cheating, curb selfish behavior, increase fairness to strangers, and promote cooperation in… societies shaped by prosocial religions” although the effect disappears for nonbelievers. Interestingly, the threat of punishment by moralistic gods who are aware of human thoughts and actions has been found to be positively associated with prosocial behavior in a wide variety of societies. In fact, a belief in a God who punishes exerts a greater positive effect on prosocial behavior than a belief in one that forgives unconditionally ("Do Mean Gods Make Nice People?").

Religion and Group Solidarity

Available research indicates that there is a positive relationship between religion and group cohesion. Fr instance, participation in collective religious rituals can help build feelings of interpersonal trust and mutuality. Scholars also point to how seemingly “costly” rites and rituals can signal commitment to the group, limit free-riding, promote a feeling of kinship among non-kin members, and draw distinct boundaries between who belongs to a group and who does not. Social scientists have long been puzzled why some religious groups embrace costly practices, such as vows of poverty, painful initiations, dietary restrictions, and dress codes, that offer few if any (obvious) benefits and often invite scorn from outsiders. Research has found, however, that many of these practices help signal commitment to the group. That is, although religious beliefs can easily be faked, some practices promote group cohesion because they are simply “too costly to fake.”

Costly rites and rituals also help limit free-riding, which can undermine the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy, and so on. In religious groups that place high demands on their followers, only those who are fully committed to the group join or at least stick around for the long term. This leads to an increase in the average level of participation, which in turn leads to higher levels of enthusiasm and energy.

Religious rituals also appear to help promote fictive kinship, such that they include “people across ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries” and often use the language of kinship to refer to one another. In fact, experimental research has found that participation in “synchronous song and dance” produces greater trust, more cooperation, and greater feelings of “being on the same team” among participants.

Finally, certain rites and rituals better distinguish group boundaries, which can help promote both intragroup cohesion and intergroup antagonism. Unfortunately, this last aspect can facilitate the dark side of prosocial religions, which can lead to intergroup intolerance, conflict, and violence.

Religion and Intergroup Fitness

It is more difficult to establish an association between religion and intergroup fitness. Nevertheless, evidence does exist that is consistent with the hypothesis that some religious beliefs help “facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures.”

For example, available evidence suggests that, on average, religious beliefs contribute to group longevity. Studies of communes have found that religiously-based ones last longer than others, and there is a strong correlation between religiously-based restrictions (e.g., dietary, sexual, outside communication) and group persistence. Put differently, stricter (and typically religious) communes tend to last longer than more lenient (and typically secular) ones. Group longevity is also a function of higher fertility rates, and people of faith tend to reproduce at higher rates.

There is a correlation between certain religious beliefs and economic success (see Barro and McCleary). For instance, countries with stronger beliefs in heaven and hell experience faster economic growth rates, and there is evidence that religious beliefs that promote certain types of family structures have historically contributed to the development of psychological traits that are typically associated with development (see the Economist 2019). In a similar vein, Robert Woodberry has demonstrated that the presence of Protestant missionaries in 142 non-European countries that is a strong predictor of democracy. Why? Because Protestantism has long held that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is important for people, including women and other minorities, to be able to read the Bible in their own language. And this led Protestant missionaries to be catalysts for literacy, education, printing, newspapers, and so on, which in turn were mechanisms for the development of democratic rule. Finally, a recent experiment involving 6,276 individuals in 320 Philippine villages found that participation in an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program that consisted of 15 weekly half-hour sessions led to an increase in household income relative to a control group (see Bryan, Choi, and Karlan 2018 & Lau and Wydick 2018).


Barro, Robert J., and Rachel M. McCleary. 2003. "Religion and Economic Growth across Countries." American Sociological Review 68(5):760-81.

Bryan, Gharad T., James J. Choi, and Dean Karlan. 2018. "Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes." NBER Working Paper Series, February (Working Paper 24278):1-78.

Darwin, Charles. 1878. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company.

Economist. 2019. "Medieval Catholicism nudged Europe towards democracy and development." The Economist (November 23, 2019). https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2019/11/23/medieval-catholicism-nudged-europe-towards-democracy-and-development.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Henig, Robin Marantz. 2007. "Darwin’s God." The New York Times Magazine (March 4):36-43, 56, 62, 77-78, 85.

Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. "The Weirdest People in the World?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2-3):61-83.

Lau, Lincoln, and Bruce Wydick. 2018. "The “Protestant Work Ethic’ Really Does Fight Poverty." Christianity Today, (June). https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/july-august/protestant-ethic-fights-poverty.html.

McCleary, Rachel M., and Robert J. Barro. 2019. The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:1-19.

Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality." Nature 530:327-30.

Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Jonathan F., Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. 2019. "The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation." Science 366(6466):eaau5141.

Shariff, Azim F., and Ara Norenzayan. 2011. "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21(2):85-96.

Shariff, Azim F., and Mijke Rhemtulla. 2012. "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates." PLoS ONE 7(6):e39048.

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Woodberry, Robert D. 2012. "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy." The American Political Science Review 106(2):244-74.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

20 of the Best Movies to Watch This Christmas

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is right up there) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and  the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Note that Linus lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!"

2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book, which is also quite good.

3. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in a minority on this point, which is why I include it here.

4. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). I think the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas doesn't sit well their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas, and they now have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks volumes about the true meaning of Christmas.

5. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie. In fact, there is is a growing debate as to whether it really is a Christmas movie (see "Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?") I obviously fall on the side of those who think it it. It takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."; Yippee ki-yay...").

6. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #13 and #14 below).

7. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), Cage is a successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't moved to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and convinces her not to leave for Paris to take a new job.

8. The Family Stone (Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson)

This tells the story about a Christmas gathering of the Stone family when the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his very uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him to introduce her to his family, as well as propose to her with his grandmother's wedding ring. Parker's reception by Mulroney's family -- played by Diane Keaton (mom, who is dying), Craig T. Nelson (dad), Rachel McAdams (younger sister), Elizabeth Reaser (older sister), Luke Wilson (younger brother), and Tyrone Giordano (youngest brother) -- is chilly, to say the least. So chilly, in fact, that Parker begs her sister (Claire Danes) to join her. Mulroney ends up falling for Danes (and vice versa), Wilson for Parker  (and vice versa), and McAdams for her ex-boyfriend (and vice versa), who is played by Paul Schneider. Chaos ensues, poignancy follows, and although critics greeted it with mixed reviews, over time it has become a holiday favorite for many.

9. Hallmark Christmas Movies (Various)

There isn't one Hallmark Christmas movie, of course. There are hundreds. Hallmark produced 21 new movies in 2016, 33 in 2017, 22 in 2018, and this year it produced 40! A new one premiers almost every night in December. And almost without exception, they're corny and predictable. They're almost always a love story, and one or other of the couple has sworn off Christmas because of some bad experience (e.g., divorce, death in the family). Moreover, you can pretty much count on them breaking up with about 15-20 minutes to go (usually due to some sort of lack of communication) and then getting back together with only a few seconds left on the clock. However, in a world where our President seems to be more bent on exploiting divisions than bringing Americans back together, I can do with a corny (cue the next movie).

10. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have at least received a best supporting actor nomination for his role, but this isn't the type of movie that actors and actresses win awards for. A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

11. Home Alone (Macaulay Culkin, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Robert Blossom)

When adjusted for inflation, Home Alone is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two highly incompetent burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), whom he continues to foil with numerous booby-traps. The rest of his family doesn't realize they left him behind until they are mid-flight to Paris and then struggle to find a flight back (all her booked). Kevin also ends up befriending Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who is rumored to have murdered his family. Like many holiday favorites, it received a mixed reception from critics, but many consider it one of the best Christmas films of all time.

12. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

13. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his  wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Stewart was one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

14. Last Christmas (Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson)

Most critics disliked this 2019 movie, which is very loosely inspired by Wham's song of the same name, but it's light-hearted (so to speak) with a somewhat surprising twist at the end, which makes it a little different from the typical Christmas movie fare. Emilia Clarke plays Kate, who is a singer who supports herself working as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop. We also eventually learn that she recently received a heart transplant from which she hasn't mentally recovered. She, in fact, appears to be careening through life with something of a death wish. One day, while at work she notices Henry Golding (Tom) outside the shop, whom she gets eventually falls for, but it's never entirely clear whether he feels the same. Nevertheless, he has a positive affect on her, and she slowly gets her life back in order. She stops drinking, having one-night stands, and restores her ties with her mom (Emma Thompson), dad, and sister. Like most Christmas movies, it's ultimately a story about redemption, in this case, Kate's, and the effect this has others. Michelle Yeoh plays "Santa," the owner of the Christmas shop where Kate works. She also played Henry Golding's mother in the movie, Crazy Rich Asians.

15. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

16. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

17. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (OHMSS) is a "Christmas film" of the way that "Die Hard" is (see above): It involves a battle between good and evil, it's set at Christmas (or quite a bit of it is), it includes Christmas songs, and it even throws in a little bit of redemption. It also involves a chase scene through a Swiss village celebrating the holiday and includes some of the skiing scenes ever. It's worth noting that an article in which The Economist considers whether "Die Hard" is really a Christmas movie, the author makes a brief case for considering OHMSS as a Christmas movie ("Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). OHMSS is, of course, the only movie in which George Lazenby plays James Bond. He was chosen after Sean Connery retired from the role after "You Only Live Twice," although Connery changed his mind and came back to play Bond in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Although OHMSS was a commercial success, its reception was mixed. The film's reputation has improved greatly over time, however. The director Christopher Nolan has named it as his favorite Bond movie, and it has slowly moved its way up the "all-time Bond film lists" ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "50 Years Later, This Bond Film Should Finally Get Its Due"), and it's no wonder. OHMSS contains some of the best action scenes of the series (which are similar to those of the more recent Bourne movies), Lazenby plays a capable Bond, Diana Rigg's excellent as his love interest and future (and only) wife, and Telly Savalas's "Blofeld" is by far the best of all the Bond films (although Christoph Waltz's portrayal in Spectre is a close second). It also follows the original novel much more closely than the other Bond films. It's definitely worth a watch this Christmas.

18. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

19. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After this, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

20. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is  a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Persistence of Belief, Part II: Religion is a Natural Accident

Previously ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"), I noted that at least three streams of thought inform the current debate about why belief and religion persist. In this post, I discuss how some believe that religion is an accidental byproduct of a separate (but adaptive) evolutionary process. In future posts, I focus on the work of cultural evolutionists who argue that religion persists because it has helped human groups adapt to various evolutionary pressures ("The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group") and explore the argument that religion persists because it helps us manage and regulate our emotions ("The Persistence of Belief, Part IV: Religion is Good for Us").

Religion is a Natural Accident

In a highly influential essay, evolutionary biologists Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin called traits or characteristics that are byproducts of the evolution of other characteristics, rather than the direct product of adaptive selection, “spandrels.” They borrowed the term from architecture which refers to the V-shaped space formed between two arches. Gould and Lewontin noted that artists often fill such spandrels with paintings or other decorations, but the spandrels are not created for the paintings themselves. Instead, they are byproducts or “accidents” of architectural design. They do not serve a purpose but exist solely because two arches align with one another. Another example of a “spandrel” is the triangular space that is created when staircases are built Such spaces are often filled with closets or cupboards, but they were not constructed in order to create a cupboard or closet. Instead, they are spandrels, or byproducts, resulting from the construction of staircases.

Following Gould and Lewontin, most cognitive scientists of religion (CSRs) consider religious belief be a spandrel, an evolutionary accident that developed alongside one or more “adaptive” characteristics. Most begin with the idea that religious belief is intuitive, that it is cognitively natural, and they draw on cognitive science in order to explain why. By “natural” they do not mean that we are hardwired for religion and that everyone, or at least anyone who is “normal,” is religious. In fact, several CSRs are openly hostile to religion and see cognitive science as a means for explaining religion away. By natural, rather, CSRs have in mind behaviors and thought processes that come easily to us and require little conscious effort on our part.

Robert McCauley has identified two ways in which naturalness can occur. One, which he calls practiced naturalness, comes about through repeated practice and training, such as how we learn to ride a bicycle or break 90 on a golf course. The other, which he calls maturational naturalness, occurs as we mature, such as how we learn to walk or to speak the common language of those around us. Of course, there are some things that come naturally appear to include a little bit of both, such as literacy, which takes both a knowledge of a language but also instruction and practice.

With regards to religion, CSRs argue that religious belief and practice is a natural outcome of the developmental process. The question is, “why?” CSRs do not entirely agree, but many begin with our tendency to attribute agency to ambiguous events. Most CSRs trace this to evolutionary processes to “better be safe than sorry” strategies for dealing with an unknown and hostile world. As the sociologist Christian Smith puts it, "In a hunt-and-be-hunted world in which one may easily become another animal’s next meal, to suspect that unusual objects and movements in one’s environment may be an agent (e.g., a big, predatory cat or a poisonous snake) is a cautious strategy than enhances one’s survival prospects, even when most unusual indicators are not agents." Justin Barrett refers to this as our “hypersensitive agent detection device (HADD),” a term and acronym that has caught on among CSRs. And from there it was only a short step to attributing ambiguous evidence to the agency of superhuman powers.

Another possible contributing factor is what Paul Bloom calls common-sense dualism, which is our tendency to think of bodies and souls as distinct entities. He sees religion as a byproduct “of the fact that we have two distinct cognitive systems, one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities.” CSRs often refer to these systems as “folk physics” and “folk psychology,” which they see as our our intuitive and automatic understandings of how the world works. Bloom argues that because we see bodies and minds as existing separately, it is not too difficult to imagine one existing without the other. Not only does this make it easy for us to believe in life after death (i.e., souls continuing on without their bodies), it makes it easy for us to believe in God.

Another factor may be our tendency, from a very young age, to think teleologically. We look for and assign meaning and purpose to everyday events. Deborah Keleman has experimentally documented this phenomenon, which she calls, “promiscuous teleology.” As Justin Barrett notes, "preschoolers are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent as behind this natural design." In other words, our tendency to believe in a God, gods, or supernatural force is not a product of socialization but rather something that develops naturally as part of our cognitive development.

All of this raises the issue as to why after gaining a foothold, religious beliefs continued to persist. CSRs posit at least two possible reasons: One draws on the work of cultural evolutionists (see the next post) and argue that religion, or at least some religions, hold beliefs that enhance a group’s ability to adapt to its environment and thus make it more likely to survive the evolutionary process of natural selection. A second reason is the notion that once they arise, religious concepts are more likely to persist if they strike a balance between naturalness and unnaturalness. The former makes them believable, while the latter makes them memorable. Put somewhat differently, they need to be counterintuitive enough to stand out, but they cannot deviate so far from societal norms that they are incomprehensible; they need to be, as M. Afzal Upal puts it, “minimally counterintuitive” (MCI).

Justin Barrett agrees that MCI beliefs are well suited for surviving evolutionary pressures, but he also believes that highly counterintuitive beliefs can persist if they construct and maintain what he calls, “cultural scaffolding,” that is, those “special artifacts, institutions, practices [and] other devices that help people learn and use these more complex concepts." They are the “extra structures [that] are needed to build up some ideas or practices that are not particularly natural.” What types of scaffolding are needed? Most obviously, ritual and worship, but that is probably not enough:
Successful theological traditions have developed [the] cultural scaffolding to make complex ideas more accessible. A portion of religious activities includes teaching, preaching, or instructive components in which religious ideas are communicated. These institutionalized practices are one part of the cultural scaffolding. Likewise the use of written texts (scripture) and sermons, common features in many religions, is the clearest example of cultural scaffolding that aid in transmitting relatively unnatural theological ideas. (Barrett 2011:141)
In other words, successful religions must put into place practices that help make complex beliefs more understandable and transmittable.


Although this post does not do justice to the argument as to why CSRs believe that religious beliefs and practices are natural, I think it captures the basic contours of their argument or at least those aspects of it on which most CSR's agree. The figure below attempts to graphically sketch their perspective:

As noted above, a number of CSRs use cognitive science to explain away religion, as do some of the so-called “New Atheists.” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Not all CSRs agree, however. Justin Barrett, for instance, is a committed Christian and has written extensively on the compatibility of the cognitive science of religion with religious belief and practice. And others have noted that it does not follow that a particular phenomenon is false just because its natural causes have been identified. As the late (and atheist) philosopher J. L. Mackie once remarked, “no account of the origin of a belief can settle the question of whether that belief is true or not.” The Oxford philosopher, Guy Kahane, makes a similar point: “the mere fact that there is a causal explanation of belief does nothing to effect its justification. All beliefs have a causal explanation” (including, one might add, atheistic beliefs). In fact, the psychologist James Jones argues that “if a set of beliefs does perform the functions it was designed for, that certainly counts in favor of its truthfulness." Moreover, we cannot know that they evolved only for survival and reproduction. They could have also evolved for other purposes:
While survival and reproduction are crucial to the species, from the beginning hominids have made music, created art, engaged in ritual and religious practice. Whatever their evolutionary trajectory, and that is lost to us, there is no reason not to see them being as much a part of our early heritage as sex and gathering food. They are not hijacks on our basic nature, they are part of our basic nature. (Jones 2016:126)
Religion's adaptive value is indeed the focus of Steven Asma's recent book, Why We Need Religion, which will be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned.


Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Barrett, Justin L. 2011. Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books.

Gould, Stephen Jay, and Richard C. Lewontin. 1979. "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B205(1161):581-98.

Jones, James W. 2016. Can Science Explain Religion? The Cognitive Science Debate. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Kahane, Guy. 2011. "Evolutionary Debunking Arguments." Noûs 45(1):103-25.

Keleman, Deborah. 1999a. "The Scope of Teleological Thinking in Preschool Children." Cognition 70:241-72. 

Keleman, Deborah. 1999b. "Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference For Teleological Explanations of the Natural World." Developmental Psychology 35:1440-53.

Mackie, John L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Christian S. 2017. Religion: What it Is, How it Works, and Why It Matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Upal, M. Afzal. 2010. "An Alternative Account of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness Effect." Cognitive Systems Research 11(2):194-203.