Saturday, October 24, 2009

Religion as Social Intelligence

If you're not yet convinced that the term "God" is a semantically meaningless but socially useful mouth-noise that functions as a costlier-than-normal speech signal that you obey a certain moral authority, then read this and then come back. Here's the Wired version. An earlier paper by Kapogiannis (the lead author here) was cited by Sam Harris's fMRI paper earlier this month.

Before we atheists get all self-congratulatory, there's a strong message in this for us. There's the first point that yes, of course this isn't proof of the god-as-signaling-noise argument, but it is one more very relevant fact to add to the Bayesian pile, and besides correlation does not equal causation in any direction here. Religion is propagated and sustained largely through social behaviors, which is why "arguments" with strong theists tend to run in circles. It's never and cannot be about coherent arguments; try to talk to an academic theologian (an elite, professional propositional theist) and you find out very quickly that even the supposed experts fall apart at a touch. It's always been about "My dad told me this, and you're an outsider so you feel wrong to me, so I'm going to do whatever I have to in order to avoid cognitive dissonance about this "idea" (really a signaling behavior) of 'God'". This usually means concealing it from any kind of discussion.

But there's a far more important point that should keep us from patting ourselves on the back. Religion has been successful in large part because they're good at social organization. They're friendlier when a new member or visitor walks in the door, they show up to bake sales on time, and honor their social commitments with alarming frequency. What are we going to do about it?

Both theists and atheists: don't tell me that if I scold other atheists for not showing up to bake sales on time that we've become just like a religion. Or I'll throw you off the internet.

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