I was reading through the Economist magazine a couple of days ago and came across an article entitled ‘Where angels no longer fear to tread’, discussing a study whose main objective it describes as an attempt to provide a ‘biological explanation’ for religion.

Whether science should be ‘poking its nose into the God business’ may be of issue to some.  But if you can get past that, the article itself is fascinating.

As for the composition of the study:

The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a“surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons,and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

The Economist calls this ‘an ambitious shopping list.’  I’d agree.  But apparently quite a bit of preliminary work on the shopping list has been carried out up to this point.

One particular study, for example, struck me as perhaps being quite relevant to the main subject of this blog.

In this particular project, Dr. Richard Sosis of the University of Connecticut analyzed a catalog of 200 19th-century American communes.

In the first part of the project, Sosis ‘found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.’

The article continues:

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.

As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40.

And the clincher:

Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community—what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

While I don’t know if I’d be quick to describe the Amish as a ‘commune’ in the most commonly-used sense of the word, I imagine the conclusions drawn here would hold true of them as well.  Rules that require such a level of personal sacrifice as the ones the Amish adhere to, likely need the highest justification in order to be effective in the long-term.

In other words, I don’t know if I’d be as motivated to, say, forgo owning an automobile if I didn’t believe it was for the good of my family and community, and ultimately to help me and my kin to live better lives and more effectively do what I feel God wants from me, with the ultimate goal of getting into heaven.

If I were grouped with a bunch of similar-minded people and we decided to collectively give up our cars, perhaps for the sake of making an environmental statement,it’s less likely our group would survive–unless somehow there was a sense of ‘sanctification’ to our mission (although to get slightly off topic here for a second, some critics of the green movement say that’s exactly what today’s environmentalists exhibit–nothing more than a faith in what these critics disparagingly call a ‘religion’, one they claim has questionable scientific basis and with a significant body of evidence supporting a contrary view).

In other words, ‘fear of God’ is perhaps the most effective motivator when it comes to a group’s adhering to an agreed-upon set of rules and principles.

Another part of the conclusions is also interesting.  The Amish population continues to grow at a rapid pace, with Amish retaining the vast majority of their youth. I feel that the ‘more constraints, the longer you last’ part of the researchers’ conclusions could also apply here. Do the many restrictions that the Amish adhere to shore up their sense of identity and belonging in relation to the outside world, thus making it more difficult to leave, or more enticing to stay,depending how you look at it?

That’s probably only part of the story.  Other elements such as restricted education and cultural associations likely play their part as well.

Putting religion ‘under the microscope’, as the article describes, can be tricky, for the obvious reasons. The conclusions such studies draw can give some nice food for thought, however.