Science, sex and the truth about God and politics

Research shows that less religion means better societal health. Try telling that to conservative Christians

Published March 15, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Excerpted from "Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression" by Hector A. Garcia

Choosing what to think is a right that dominant men prefer to keep to themselves. Thus one of the most effective means of keeping a populace empowered and protecting it from falling victim to the will of dictators, religious or otherwise, is to ensure the free flow of information in and out of the minds of its members. Freedom of information is essential to keeping governments, and the men who lead them, transparent and accountable. It also enables a populace to expose corruption. Freedom of expression can help to ensure that rules of governance are debated openly and in the best interests of the populace.

Conversely, if we learn anything from history, it should be that censorship is enormously dangerous. Censorship stops truths or ideas from emerging, particularly those that draw attention to inequities of power or wealth, or to abuses by those in positions of authority. Most importantly, censorship keeps a population ignorant, which holds great appeal to dictators. Adolf Hitler, a man responsible for the deaths of an estimated eleven million people, executed a massive book-burning campaign in which science books (by Albert Einstein among them) were widely destroyed across Germany. Moreover, scientists who were Jewish or deemed a threat to Nazi ideology were forbidden to work or publish. They, along with many poets, novelists, and artists, were purged from German society by revoking their citizenship or sending them to their deaths in concentration camps. History is riddled with examples. Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for exterminating some twenty million people, imposed total censorship of all forms of media in the Soviet Union. Mindful of the importance of a dominant-male reputation, he forbade any literature that described defeat of the Soviet Army or fear among its ranks. Given what we have learned, it becomes evident that censorship is really another form of male domination—one unique to our species, whose most important adaptation is the capacity of the mind to process information.

But while leaders need not be religious to rely upon censorship as a tool for domination, neither have religious leaders shied away from this tactic. Popes, inquisitors, imams, and evangelicals have denied freedom of information by burning or forbidding books, and by controlling which books are printed, allowing only one book, or by claiming the exclusive right to interpret books. Freedom of expression has suffered similar injuries. We have seen how words spoken against scripture, gods, or the men who represent gods have too often been answered by censure, rejection, or worse, by torture or killing.

At their most shrewd, religious leaders have also applied tremendous emotional leverage to this kind of intellectual control—by making silence a virtue (calling it faith) and by making questioning a sin (calling it blasphemy). Knowledge itself can be seen as sinful, as is suggested in the central narrative of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge. A parallel of knowledge, reason, can become the “devil’s greatest whore,” to borrow from Martin Luther. What religious despots and secular dictators have in common is the understanding that knowledge leads to a sense of empowerment. It is perhaps for this reason that ambitious men have made such an effort to promulgate the central Abrahamic narrative of a terrifying, temperamental god who abhors knowledge and does not suffer questions, particularly those concerning the prevailing power structure. Such men have the advantage of our evolutionary history working in their favor.

This brings us back to one of the most important protections against religious tyranny: the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson articulates the point:

Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was a precursor to the First Amendment. He and other proponents of the separation fully recognized how religious mind control can lead to the abuse of power. Jefferson goes into greater detail:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.

Now, there is a certain notable irony in the fact that Jefferson argues that God chose not to impose religious coercion despite his power to do so, once again illustrating how powerful men may summon a particular image of God to reinforce their own desires. Similarly, it is fair to say that most of the founding fathers were atheist, or at very least agnostic, and that their views on religious tolerance were to a great extent a practical concern. Jefferson’s choice of words was likely intended to engage believers in his efforts to avert religious tyranny. At the heart of these ideas was the prevention of the kinds of religious violence and oppression that had borne such bloody fruit for Europe in the centuries leading up to the revolutionary era.

Rather than outlawing religion outright (as, for example, was attempted in the former Soviet Union), or forcing conformity of religious perspective, Jefferson and his coauthors went on to ground the separation of church and state in America in a more tolerant approach — namely, on the notion that freedom of religious thought and practice and government impartiality in religious matters go hand in hand. Jefferson’s corevolutionary, James Madison, addressed this view directly when he wrote that:

Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.

Two hundred years later, questions remain about this American experiment. Richard Dawkins points out that, “Precisely because America is legally secular, religion has become free enterprise” and illustrates how American churches compete for wealth and congregants in the spiritual marketplace. Some scholars have gone so far as to propose that free-enterprising religions have created unusually high religiosity in America, and while the research on these claims is in dispute, the level of economic power achieved by churches operating in the free market warrants some scrutiny. Churches, and the religious men (and the occasional woman) who run them, have accumulated staggering wealth in America. A surprising number of American evangelists earn million-dollar salaries and own multimillion-dollar mansions and jet airplanes. And to be sure they are a lobbying force to be reckoned with. According to the Pew Research Center, religious advocacy groups, most of which enjoy tax-exempt status, spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in an effort to influence US public policy. The result is that in America, the wall of separation between church and state that Jefferson described is under constant threat of being breached. Freethinking, freedom of information, and even the freedom to understand the evolutionary designs of our own minds are threatened when the lines between church and state are muddled.

The Texas State Board of Education offers a case study that would be perversely hilarious if it were not such a dangerous example of censorship, which is here entwined with insufficient separation of church and state (as is often the case). For years, the board, which is comprised mostly of members who endorse conservative Christianity, has exuberantly attempted to force creationist teachings into public-school textbooks, censoring evolutionary science and injecting false uncertainty about the veracity of natural selection. Despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson was arguably the most influential political philosopher in American history, credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, the board has attempted to erase him from the history books (perhaps because he is also known for coining the phrase “separation between church and state”). While removing Jefferson from the list of other Enlightenment philosophers—John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles de Montesquieu—they added John Calvin, a theologian who, in addition to supporting the murder of heretics, once said, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.” After much criticism, the board reinstated Jefferson, but removed the term “Enlightenment” from the curriculum.

The board has also attacked the separation of church and state more directly. When one Democratic board member proposed a standard that would have allowed students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others,” a Republican member argued that the “founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America,” exclaiming that the statement was “not historically accurate.” The board voted down the standard. The fact that these kinds of assaults on freethinking can occur in contemporary America—where both freedom of speech and separation between church and state have legal protection—is a testament to just how insidious religious censorship can be.

In responding to such an assault on truth in education, I am reminded that science remains one of the best means to gather unbiased information. It allows us to test ideas that seem accurate, but that may not be, and to move on from faulty assumptions. Moreover, it allows us to be skeptical of our own beliefs. It thus provides an indispensable service to humanity, particularly in light of all the myriad of assumptions that we humans may make based on what feels emotionally intuitive to us. Science allows us to see and acknowledge the evolved design of our brains and to understand how this very design—stunning as it is—leaves our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors so prone to bias.

Despite vilification by an impressively large and economically powerful group of conservative Christians in America, evolutionary science is particularly useful because it can provide unique insight into the ultimate causes of human behavior—especially that which generates human suffering, like religiously motivated violence. At times, evolutionary science may seem off-putting for precisely this reason—because it forces us to acknowledge that we are under certain circumstances predisposed to do terrible things to one another. Some may fear that such an admission diminishes their freedom of choice. But we are not bound to our evolutionary designs; we have the capacity to outsmart them. Our use of contraception is an example often cited by evolutionary scholars, a case in which we have severed the link between our evolved design (to reproduce) and our own desires (to have sex). Wearing eyeglasses or using sunscreen are other examples of our refusal to abide by the genes Mother Nature has dealt us.

The beauty of evolutionary science is that it has the potential to help expand our existing freedoms. When we begin to understand our unconscious evolutionary predispositions, we may begin to make more rational and humane choices, such as not responding to our destructive impulses, including those imbedded in religious dogma—for instance, scriptures that paint outsiders as inherently immoral, dangerous, or evil. In an environment where evolutionary science is censored by religious powers, the ability for evolutionary knowledge to contribute to a more reflective, more compassionate social dialogue is cut off at the knees. But it can support the nurturance of a more adaptable, humane set of beliefs if allowed a voice in the conversation about who we are. The more we understand about how and why we humans have the tendency to behave the way we do, the greater our potential will be for moving beyond our current limitations.

Strong (and protected) scientific education is not as widely accessible as it should be, nor is training in analytic and critical thinking encouraged in many education systems around the world. And yet it is precisely this kind of critical thinking—this urge to question everything, including why the sky is blue and why God is typically an omnipotent man whose will must be appeased—that will support our continued spiritual and social evolution.

The first principle of education should be to question one’s own knowledge and understanding and to strive for impartiality. Here, religious ethics can learn much from scientific ethics. Because science is an impartial tool, scientists (if practicing correctly) strive to follow the dictates of impartiality as closely as possible so as not to contaminate the scientific process with personal bias. It should go without saying that humans can import bias into any endeavor, which scientists acknowledge by their very practice of science; but science has more methods to resist being coopted than most ways of knowing. Conversely, religions are generally very poor at impartiality, owing largely to the fact that dominant men have created gods in their own image and in doing so have made them infallible. By now we should appreciate the danger that such stances pose. To abide by doctrines that cannot be questioned, against which opposing evidence cannot be posed, is to make oneself exquisitely vulnerable to despotic behavior. But science rests on the notion of falsifiability—making assertions that, if false, can be revealed to be false by a particular observation or experiment—in essence, requiring the ability to question. Falsifiability, then, presents great contrast to infallibility. And while still susceptible to the weaknesses of the people who practice it, science starts off with a modicum of humility purposefully built in.

Further, science is adaptable whereas the adaptability of religious doctrine is greatly suspect. When there exists a theory in science about which contrary evidence has been collected through unfettered scientific inquiry, and when enough evidence has been collected to reasonably assume the theory is false, then that theory is abandoned. Thus science is by design open to incoming information. Infallible gods, men, religions, and scriptures, on the other hand, explicitly and intentionally disallow corrective information. They rest on an arrogant sort of self-certainty about the nature of the universe and of the right way to conduct human affairs. Religions have a great deal to say about humility, but as with the rank structures of apes and humans, humility is apportioned unequally according to rank and flows only upwards —humility toward God or dominant religious men is compulsory, but no such modest respect is due to subordinates.

Thus, I suggest that a final principle for fostering spiritual dialogue should be the extension of humility toward knowledge, learning, and other beings. Such humility might follow the basic tenets of science or those rare religious edicts that are based on curiosity about the world and openness to learning new information with the notion that we don’t already know all there is to know. Great philosophers across history have taken this approach. Socrates, for instance, who was arguably among the most brilliant of his era, was eager to acknowledge the limits of his understanding—for example, “I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.” There have been many other philosophers, scientists, historians, and, even the rare religious leader, who I deem warriors of the greatest spirit, who have taken great personal risk to battle human ignorance and prejudice with rational understanding in an effort to create a more reasoned and compassionate world.

In keeping with scientific humility, I acknowledge that there is much that we do not yet understand about the science of religious belief and practice. There are many remaining questions. To start with, if religious experience activates reward centers of the brain, then can those experiences be separately stimulated somehow in a manner that doesn’t require submission to a more powerful being? Or did our capacity for religion evolve so entwined within the dominance hierarchies of primates that religious ecstasy and “powerful-being worship” are inseparable? If not, could this be done pharmacologically or through genetic engineering or by certain kinds of “spiritual” practice? Meditation may be a way, although it is not clear that it can ever be as emotionally rewarding as the sense of awe that a primate experiences in the presence of a powerful (hypothetical) being. Could such a meditative experience ever be powerful enough to supplant religions based on conquest? Can education push people toward positive religious selectivity from doctrines advocating both compassion and cruelty? Or do such collections of scriptures in themselves leave an open door for the dominant males of our primate societies to barrel through and enact their evolutionary imperatives, leaving bodies and grief in their wake? I have many questions—and many hypotheses—but more understanding garnered through objective scientific research is crucially needed.

Another question, for which answers are beginning to emerge, is whether secularization results in improving the human condition above and beyond the freedom from oppression or violence at the hands of dominant males. Conservative religious interests often argue that societal health depends on belief in God to maintain moral order, social discipline, and just actions. However, it may be useful to look at more secular societies and see how they fare.

Citing research by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, Sam Harris points out that the most secularized nations in the world (such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Holland) fare far better than the most religious countries on a wide array of societal health indices including “life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP [gross domestic product], child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations.” Other research reaches similar conclusions, showing that more religiosity (including rejecting Darwinian principles) is associated with poorer results on measures of societal health, which leads researchers to conclude that the socioeconomic or existential insecurity that comes with living in less prosperous countries may influence people to glom on to religious belief as a means of coping. In other words, where survival feels less secure, the comfort of religion may have added appeal, but it does not appear to result in creating better conditions of life.

This explanation is compatible both with the research evidence and with a vision of God as the alpha symbol that provides resources and protects against death. But the issue is complex, and a better understanding of the role of dominant-male psychology in religious belief may prove useful here. In the secularized nations on which the research in this area is based, many of the features that make them healthy—such as high gender equality, economic equality, literacy, university enrollment, media access, and environmental protection—would seem to be at odds with dominant-male ambitions. Dominant primate males prefer to monopolize and sexually control females, which in human terms results in poorer gender equality. Among societies run by the most despotic males, socioeconomic equality is only a dream—most attempt to monopolize any indicators of socioeconomic wealth, whether measured in money, the fruits of production, or desired fruits on a Gombean tree. Dominant males have also historically been threatened by knowledge, to which literacy, college enrollment, and media access all lead.

Environmental protections often run into opposition from an economic ideology based on growth-at-all-costs, urged on by the hungry engines of the male reproduction strategy. Thus, while it may be that religiosity per se is counterproductive to societal health, we also cannot discount the influence of the specific religions that predominate in these nations—primarily the Abrahamic faiths with their dominant male god decreeing the rights to oppress women, accumulate wealth, control minds, and destroy the environment to the dominant men that represent him. Lower crime rates may also be traceable to the psychology of dominance. Research indicates that it is not poverty that creates crime, but resource inequality. Unequal resources are almost the invariable result when dominate males begin to monopolize their hierarchical rewards.

Once again the issue is complex and the relationships, understudied, and important questions remain. Is it that dominant men in secularized countries are less able to exert totalitarian rule without the backing of a dominant male god? Does greater secularization empower citizens to shuck off the tenets of religions based on dominance and submission, thus leaving them less vulnerable to ambitious men who would puppeteer God? Does it nourish education or critical thinking skills that help people to meet religion with thoughtful questions? There is a case to be made that people feel less beholden to religious authorities in nations that provide expansive social welfare programs, which once were the domain of the church. Churches were long responsible for welfare, education, health care, orphanages, and so on, but eventually lost their monopolies when universities became the bastions of knowledge and secular state-run social welfare programs began to develop. The least religious and socially healthiest countries also happen to have the best state-run social welfare programs.

In all this research, America emerges as an outlier on many variables. Research has consistently found less religiosity in more economically prosperous countries, with the notable exception of America. However, though exceptionally wealthy, America is also characterized by the greatest economic inequality. It should come as no surprise, then, that in America, religiosity tends to drop away with increasing wealth. Returning to evolutionary psychiatrist John Price and his discussion of the possible adaptations of temporary submission, this raises the question of whether religion in America is used as a strategy to put the subordinate classes in a “giving up state of mind.” If so, how much is scripture a factor? There are pervasive ideas in Christianity that would seem to encourage giving up for the possibility of later reward—that Christ will ride down to earth and reverse the fortune of kings in favor of the pious (while razing the entire planet), that the meek shall inherit the earth if they would just wait, and so on. Does this kind of scripture make people more accepting of economic disparity? Does it inhibit their reaction? In mostly atheistic Sweden, the ratio of salaries of CEO’s and the general population is 13:1. By contrast, in America, where 80 percent of the citizenry believes in Judgment Day, it’s 475:1.41.

Racism also tends to be associated with religiosity in America. Does having a religion based on a god with a chosen tribe, who espouses genocide against outsiders, play a role in this? Certainly American settlers have a long history of using the Christian religion to dominate the outside races—namely, the African slaves and Native Americans who were made to kneel before Europeans and their dominant male god. What role, if any, do the scriptures of racial domination have on contemporary racism? Consider what advice the Bible offers to slaves:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ. (Eph. 6:5)

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. (1 Tim. 6:1)

The healthiest countries described above are characterized by great economic equality and all-inclusive social welfare, including paid maternity leave for women, comprehensive medical care, social security, and pensions. America, on the other hand, with its strong cultural emphasis on personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, tends to limit public services and welfare. Freelance researcher Gregory Paul argues that conservative religious political forces in America have supported deregulated and reduced taxation for the rich and notes the irony of how “the religious right that is the main opponent to Darwinian science has become a leading proponent of what has been labeled socioeconomic Darwinism.” He goes on to point out that the same forces vigorously promote faith-based charities in place of government-run social services, even though the empirical evidence suggests that faith-based charities are no more effective.

What advantages do the religious conservative forces in America have in keeping the populace reliant on faith-based charities? This, too, is an open question, but there is a cultural history of religious dominance in America in which religious charity was used as a tool for keeping subordinated classes in their social place. For example, African slaves and Native Americans were forced from their former means of self-sufficiency—in the former by taking them from their native lands and in the latter by eradicating the animals on which they subsisted and appropriating the land on which they dwelled. In return they were yoked by the forced charity of the churches and missions that administered both their food and their indoctrination into the Christian religion, much through selectively proselytizing the doctrines of submission noted above. This strategy is not new to America. Napoleon once said that:

Society cannot exist without the inequality of fortunes, and inequality of fortune cannot exist without religion. When one man is dying of hunger by the side of another who is overfed, it is impossible for him to submit to this difference unless there is an authority which says to him: “God wills it thus: there must be rich and poor in the world, but afterwards and for all eternity matters, will be otherwise arranged.”

How much, if any, do the doctrines of submission in Christianity relate to the vast inequities of wealth in America? And why is it that the wealthy in America are less likely to be religious? Does having power make you less vulnerable to doctrines of submission? If so by what means?

Finally, in constricting the room for powerful males to corrupt the societal health of nations, there may be a corresponding value to empowering women. While women tend to be attracted to dominant traits in males and reward dominant men with sex (likely the most powerful of all motivators for males to dominate), the extent to which women’s own needs are subjugated depends on their economic independence from men. For instance, the societies that least emphasize chastity (a form of female sexual control) —again, seen most in Scandinavia—are the ones that provide the best social services for women, such as paid childcare, extended paid maternity leave, and other material benefits. As David Buss explains, “Where women control their economic fate, do not require so much of men’s investment, and hence need to compete less, women are freer to disregard men’s preferences. . . . Men everywhere might value chastity if they could get it, but in some cultures they simply cannot demand it from their brides.”

The extent to which religious dogma influences public policy around female sexuality and economic power is another open question. But consider the potential power of messages in the Bible, such as in Deuteronomy, in which a man who discovers his bride is not a virgin is allowed to have her stoned to death at her father’s doorstep (Deut. 22:13–21). Here there is (or should be) obvious ethical value to returning to women the control of their sexuality and support for such a move through public policy.

However, the take-home message from this line of research is that less religion is associated with better societal health, which is precisely contrary to the argument made by conservative Christians in America and suggests once more the potential ills of relying too heavily on an ethics based on appeasing the whims of an alpha god.

Excerpted from "Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression" by Hector A. Garcia. Published by Prometheus Books. Copyright 2015 by Hector A. Garcia. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Hector A. Garcia

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