Category Archives: religion

Inventing America: Dreamers and Doers


As I write this during the American election campaign you may notice things are getting crazier and crazier in the good old USA. Why is that? That is the issue I have been trying to explore.


The Puritans started to call themselves Pilgrims. According to Kurt Andersen, they saw themselves as “extremists of a better social station—talked themselves into leaving England and creating their own American religious utopia.

The Puritan were interesting fanatics. Of course which fanatics are not interesting? For one thing they did not cross the ocean to improve their economic well being. They had dreams of ideas! When you think about it that was amazing. Remember all the hardships they had to endure for their ideas! They wanted to create a New World. What did that New World entail? They wanted a theocracy where they could banish those evil Catholics that had persecuted them in England. They also wanted to banish Church of England clergy, for they were not better than the Papists in their eyes. They wanted religious freedom where everybody could be just like them.

John Winthrop was their first leader and he created a great myth that was constantly revived by leaders like Saint Ronald Reagan. He said in his famous sermon, “We are as a city upon a hill endlessly happy.” Saint Ronald Reagan used this mythology to enhance his claim to Sainthood. It worked. Yet, many Americans have forgotten that this means they must be better than everyone else, not that they are better than everyone else.

As Andersen said about the Puritans,

“If one has enough belief in the supernatural plan, if one’s personal faith is strong enough, false prophecies are just unfortunate miscalculations that don’t falsify anything. If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”

FantasyLand was born and America is living the dream. Or is it the nightmare? The Puritans wanted a place where no one would knock them for their crazy ideas. That was America. They created America—a place where crazy ideas came home to thrive. Anderson called them “the most literal-minded fantasists ever.” The world they created was truly FantasyLand for adults. For both good and ill.

Now its time to look to see what  they created.

Puritans: The First Extremists


Many of us who know and love America as I do, have been perplexed by the all out mania of their extremism. Americans do nothing halfway. It is all in or all out. No medium in between. That may be a product of their birth.

The first settlers to the New World found fertile ground for their extreme beliefs and ultimately for the imposition of those beliefs on others. Many were fleeing religious persecution in Europe so that they could impose religious persecution on others in that new world. Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand described early American religiosity this way:

“Yet unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable, invented almost within living memory by uncompromising rebels who couldn’t abide interpretations and rules issued by expert super clergy. It was an innovative new religion successful at a time when innovations were transforming the rest of Europe’s cultures and economies. Protestantism was thus part of an exciting tide of novelty, along with the printing press, global trade, the Renaissance, the beginnings of modern science, and the Enlightenment. It’s unique selling proposition was radical. When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.”

I was born and raised in Steinbach. We had Mennonites and even more radical Pentecostals. Wild and whacky beliefs were in the air we breathed. In America the first extremists were the Puritans who built a society in the New World in their own image. They were given that name by the established Christians. It was not a complement. Many of them were Calvinists. They were nothing if not true believers. They came to establish a world of true believers. They wanted to be separate from the established Church of England. Soon they wanted to separate from England itself. First they tried the Netherlands but there was too much heresy there too so they sailed to the New World.  As Anderson said, “Ferociously believing every miracle and myth wasn’t enough.”

Steinbach was not that different. The Mennonites wanted to keep themselves separate and apart “from the world.”

As Andersen said,

“What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner. Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity…In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

They were sort of like Mennonites on steroids.

The natives the Puritans found in the New World did not matter. Those people were just not civilized. The people who mattered were the religious zealots. As Andersen described it, “The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies.”

And America has been hyper-religious ever since. And it shows. Welcome to FantasyLand.


Searching for gold or God


Not all of the first visitors to the New World were searching for Gold. Some of them searched for God or souls. Many of them were devout and fervid in pursuit of their targets. As Kurt Andersen said in his book FantasyLand, “For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.”

Like Martin Luther King Jr. 5 centuries later the newcomers had a dream. As Andersen said,

“America began as a fever dream, a myth, a happy delusion, a fantasy. In fact, it began as multiple fantasies, each embraced around 1600 by people so convinced of their thrilling, wishful fictions that most of them abandoned everything—friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world—to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.

The first English people in the New World imagined themselves as heroic can-do characters in exciting adventures. They were self-fictionalizing extremists who abandoned everything familiar because of their blazing beliefs, their long-shot hopes and dreams, their please-be-true fantasies.”


Is it any wonder that America has been the most hospital place on earth for crazy beliefs? Is it any surprise that the country currently is laced with delusional thinking? This is the home of fantasyland.

Why is belief is all-important?


Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand argued that it was necessary to go back 500 years to explain the New World. He started with the new religion that was born—Protestantism. It was of course just a version of the old Catholicism, but it had some important innovations that had important long term consequences. Martin Luther was particularly vexed by,

the regional archbishop, in order to cover the costs of celebrating his elevation to cardinal, has encouraged local Christians to pay money to be forgiven their sins (and the sins of deceased loved ones), thereby reducing or eliminating the posthumous wait in purgatory.”


After all it really didn’t make sense that paying money for prayers would put us in front of the line in heaven.

Luther was also upset by the holy relics found in his local church. Most of them of course were fake. The relics included:

 “a piece of straw from baby Jesus’s manger, threads from His swaddling clothes, a bit of Mary’s breast milk, a hair from adult Jesus’s beard, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, and a thorn from His crucifixion crown. The young theologian, appalled by the church’s merchandising, writes an impassioned three-thousand-word critique in proto-PowerPoint form, nails it to the door of the church on All Saints’ Eve, Halloween, and for good measure sends a copy of his screed to the archbishop himself.”


The church had been selling fake news. It’s not popular now; it wasn’t popular then.

The manifesto that Luther published in 1517 also had a profound effect. Andersen described its genesis this way:

“Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phoney VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.”

That didn’t have much to say for itself either. But Martin Luther had 2 extremely important ideas that actually had some long-term pernicious effects. The first of those ideas was that,

clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.”


This allowed everyone to create his or her own truth. While I am no advocate for relying on authority, this idea had some dangerous consequences. Some people in time abandoned the notion of truth entirely, or at least substituted the idea that anyone could claim truth for any idea, no matter how hair-brained.

Luther had a second important concept to bring forth. This was the idea that belief or faith was all-important. It did not matter what one did, if one had the right faith or belief. You could not buy your way into heaven but why were beliefs or faith so important? I have never quite understood that. Maybe someone can explain.


Andersen describes the new attitude of Protestantism this way:

“…out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”


Good ideas are not often enough to launch a revolution in thought on their own. In Luther’s case he took advantage of an astounding new technology—the printing press. As Andersen said,

“No new technology, during the thousand years between gunpowder and the steam engine, was as disruptive as the printing press, and Protestantism was its first viral cultural phenomenon.”


Reminds me of the disruptive effect modern technologies like social media have had. Are we on the brink of another revolution in thought? What will it’s long term consequences be?

Promiscuous Devotion to the Untrue

Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand diagnosed the problem as an attitude. This is how he described it:

“What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”


Andersen believes, as I believe, that the roots of fantasy are deep and it is important for us to understand them if we want to understand where we are at in the modern world. As he said,

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.”

And the consequences of giving ourselves over to fanciful thinking are not innocent. They are very dangerous and we are paying the price now. We are paying it bigly. As Andersen explains:

“Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same

And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.

America has mutated into Fantasyland.”

As a result of this attitude, 500 years in the making Americans, and to a lesser extent their little cousins, Canadians, have come to believe in a large host of wildly extravagant  beliefs, when you really think about it. About 2 out 3 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world. About a half believe that a personal god is looking after them no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. At the same time about a third of Americans reject the science of climate change even though 97% or more of scientists assure them it is real. In fact many Americans believe climate change is a hoax or an evil communist plot against them. About 25% believe that vaccines cause autism. These are just a few of their wild beliefs. We will look at lot more. About 20% believe that the government adds secret mind controlling technology to television broadcasts. None of these beliefs are benign. They all have consequences. The problem is that Americans and Canadians too, have what Andersen called a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.”

Religion and Morality

Dostoevsky famously had a character of his claim, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no god then all is permitted. I have actually argued, that if there is a god then all is permitted. More on that another time. Is Dostoevsky right? Are religion and morality that closely tied together?

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, groupishness (the 10% bee in us compared to the 90% chimp in us) is what has allowed humans to go from selfishness to civilization. Relying on Emile Durkheim, Haidt says that “what is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to…regulate his actions by something other than…his own egoism.”

I find this very interesting because this is more or less what I have always said religion is. Religion or morality, on this view, is what connects us to others or to the world.

Haidt also offered an interesting definition of moral systems. He said,

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

That is a mouthful and I am not sure what I think of it. It’s a functional definition so it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I just think that Haidt had some very interesting things to say about religion and morality, and he made me think. That’s a good thing.

Haidt does not say whether supernatural beings exist or not. He believes such ideas may have evolved with humans as they evolved. He does say however, that those groups who believed in such agents and used such beliefs in building moral and cohesive societies lasted and prospered. They used such ideas to elicit sacrifices and commitment from their members and that helped them to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness and that helped them in their projects. Groups that had gods who promoted cooperation responded to those gods and were helped to rise to the challenges they faced.

In that sense Haidt says religion is a team sport. As he said:

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”

That is also what morality is all about. Religion has not always been about those things. Often religion has been an instrument of division not cooperation. Then religion is shorn of what makes it sacred. It is no longer religion at all.

Finally, this is what politics should be about as well. Clearly, currently that is not the case in much of the world. Politics is riven by partisanship instead. Everywhere you look people are driven apart by politics. That’s a pity. Together we could accomplish so much. Much more than we could on our own. As every coach knows, it’s teams that succeed, not individuals.


Religion: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Jonathan Haidt’s analysis so far does not mean religion is an unmixed blessing. But it does mean religion does some good—some significant good.

Haidt paid attention to scientific work by R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell and their fascinating research into religion. That research has revealed some surprising things about religions. One thing it has led to is the conclusion that religion has produced large surpluses of social capital that has benefitted not just religious adherents, but outsiders as well.

Jonathan Haidt has argued, that religions are sets of cultural practices that coevolved with the minds of humans by the process of multi-level natural selection. He has pointed out that to the extent that group-level selection occurred, we can expect religions and religious minds to be parochial. In other words, human minds concentrate on helping the in-group of humans. Yet, this is true, he argues, “even when a religion preaches universal love and benevolence.”

That may be not be intuitive, but Haidt argues that “Religiosity evolved because successful religions made groups more efficient at “turning resources into offspring.” As a result of that Haidt argues, “Religion is therefor well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” While those are not entirely benign forces, they can be aligned with beneficial results too. He gave the example of suicide bombing. Based on work by Robert Pape who created a database of every known suicide bombing in the last 100 years which showed that “suicide bombing is a nationalistic response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power…It’s a response to contamination of the sacred homeland.” Haidt asks us to look at it as if it were a fist punched into a beehive and then left in for a long time. That is rather a graphic image.

Yet it is admittedly true that most military occupations don’t lead to suicide-bombing because they don’t affect the right ideology that can rally the support of fanatical young men. Not every one is willing to die for a sacred cause. Shiite Muslims were the first to demonstrate that suicide bombing can work, as they used it to drive the United States Marines out of Lebanon in 1983. What does all this have to do with religion? Well according to Haidt,

“Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group, while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Either way, that is not so good.

Haidt analyzes the religious enterprise like this:

“…if you look at the long history of humanity and see our righteous minds as nearly miraculous freaks of evolution that cry out for explanation, then you might feel some appreciation for the role religion played in getting us here. We are Homo duplex.[1] We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.[2] Successful religions work on both levels of our nature to suppress selfishness, or at leas to channel it in ways that often pay dividends for the group. Gods were helpful in creating moral matrices within which Glauconian[3] creatures have strong incentives to conform. And gods were an essential part of the evolution of our hivish overlay;[4] sometimes we really do transcend self-interest and devote ourselves to helping others or our groups.[5]”


According to Haidt, if a person lives in a religious community, he or she has a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work intuitively to influence your behavior without really thinking about what you are doing. An atheist does not have the benefit of that. If one is an atheist one might have a looser community with a less binding moral matrix that requires you to think through an issue. It is not intuitive. It is not automatic. To many, like me, that might actually sound appealing, but it is recipe for a society without a shared moral order. According to Haidt, we have evolved to implement our norms and to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. As Haidt explains, “When societies lose their grip on individuals that allows them to do as they please, and although that sounds pleasant, it actually leads to individuals being less happy and actually leads to increases in suicide. I remember a philosophy professor of mine who use to say John Stuart Mills’ “liberty” is Emile Durkheim’s “suicide.”

As a result, Haidt argues that societies that forgo religion over several generations will suffer. He says we don’t really know that yet since atheistic societies are a relatively new phenomena so we don’t yet have the empirical evidence to back it up, so Haidt is speculating. But it is certainly interesting speculation.

So religion leads to happier lives Haidt argues. Such societies will be better or more efficient at turning resources into offspring and hence will be more successful than atheistic societies. And remember, Haidt is an atheist.

In my view, this is all very interesting speculation. I am not sure I agree, but it is worth thinking about.

[1] this is what Haidt refers to humans as. By that he means that humans are creature who exist at 2 levels: as an individual and as members of a larger society (group)

[2] by that Haidt means in simplified terms that we are 90% selfish individuals and 10% social members of a group

[3] Glaucon was Plato’s brother who argued that people are only virtuous when they are worried about the consequences of being caught

[4] the bee in us

[5] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (2012) p. 312-313

Religion can Unite us or it can divide us


It goes without saying that religion can be a force for good or ill. We have known for quite some time that religions can unite us, but they can also divide us. No one should know this better than a Mennonite like me. As I have said many times, when religion divides us rather than connects us, it is not actually religion at all. It is something else. In fact when religion divides us, it is not even religion. It is misnamed. It should be called anti-religion.

If the data shows (as I argued in an earlier post) that religions help people to be more generous to members of their own group, how does it help or hinder them to be generous towards non-members of that group? That is an interesting question. Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote a book that dealt with exactly that. It was called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. This is where the evidence gets really surprising, because one might think that people who are generous to members of their own group, don’t have enough resources to be generous as well to non-members.

As Jonathan Haidt said,

“Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Putnam and Campbell did not stop there. They were even more explicit:

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”


Frankly this is directly contrary to what I always believed was the case. I first thought about this when I learned that the little town of Blumenort near to us in Steinbach had the highest rates of charitable donations per capita in Canada. At first I thought that was fantastic. It is fantastic. But, on reflection I thought that was only because Blumenort was a primarily Mennonite town and they gave most of that money to their church. I was dismissive for that reason. It turns out, based on this data, that I might be wrong.

Does that mean that my entire view of religion is wrong? The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt really made me seriously rethink what I thought about religion! That is amazing. I always thought I was open to new ideas. Now I had proof that this was true.

Now all of this brings up more questions. Fruitful new ideas always do that. That is a good thing. As a result I asked, what type of religion has this result? Is Islam as much a force for good as Christianity? Buddhists better than Muslims?  Are Catholics better than Mennonites? What about less institutional religions? Putnam and Campbell in from their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. did not have answers to all of these questions (darn),  but they did have some useful information about such questions as well.

Jonathan Haidt reflecting on the data of  Putnam and Campbell Putnam and Campbell analyzed the data this way:

“Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? To find out, Putnam and Campbell included on one of their surveys a long list of questions about religious beliefs (e.g. “Do you believe in hell? Do you agree that we will all be called before God to answer for our sins?”) as well as questions about religious practices ) e.g., “How often do your read holy scriptures? How often do you pray?”). These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon…none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.”

I was not surprised to learn beliefs were largely irrelevant. I have thought that for a long time. Putnam and Campbell reject the New Atheist emphasis on belief and reach a conclusion straight out of Durkheim: “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

It’s not doctrines or even faith that matters. What does matter is to what extent does a religion help us to connect to others. Which brings me back to my fundamental principle—religion is something that helps us connect to others or even the world. That goes back to the original meaning of the Asian word religios which means connection.

I would put it this way: the more your religion leads you to feel connected with your fellows the more likely you are to be a better neighbour; the more likely you are to be a better citizen, the more likely you are to be a better person! That is what religion—true religion—is all about. Religion is what connects us to others. Religion is not what divides us from others.

Is religion Good or Bad?


Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind provided some more shocking insights. At least to me an admitted irreligious person. At least I proved to myself that I have at least a partially open mind to consider his point of view. Actually he changed my point of view about religion more than any other person in quite some time. He began by asking a fundamental question: does religion make people good or bad?


Atheists invariably point out that religions cause a lot of wars, genocides, and acts of terrorism. They divide people when they should unite them. Religion has been used to oppress vulnerable groups like women, children (yes children), people of colour, people with perceived deviant sexual orientations, and many others. The track record of religion is far from evenly beneficial. They are not entirely bad either.

Religious believers often claim atheists and sceptics are morally bankrupt and can’t be trusted. A character in one of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov said, “If God is dead all is permitted.”

Where does the truth lie? Haidt has some amazing evidence. He does not rely on faith. He relies on evidence and data. He is a scientific person. I claim to be a person who makes believes contingent on evidence.

First, Haidt points out that it is not a reasonable expectation for religion to produce unconditional altruists. It’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t have to achieve perfection to be a force for good. Haidt put the case for religion this way:

“Whatever Christ said about the good Samaritan who helped an injured Jew, if religion is a group-level adaptation, then it should produce parochial altruism. It should make people exceedingly generous and helpful toward members of their own moral communities, particularly when their reputations will be enhanced. And indeed, religion does exactly this. Studies of charitable giving in the United States show that people in the least religious fifth of the population give just 1.5 percent of their money to charity. People in the most religious fifth (based on church attendance, not belief) give a whopping 7 percent of their income to charity, and the majority of that giving is to religious organizations. It’s the same story for volunteer work; religious people do far more than secular folk and the bulk of that work is done for, or at least through, their religious organizations.”


So far I was not surprised. What he told me next though did surprise me. In fact, it shocked me, because it was directly contrary to what I had always thought.

There is also some evidence that religious people behave better in lab experiments—especially when they get to work with each other. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game in which one person is the “truster,” who is given some money on each round of the game. The truster is then asked to decide how much money, if any, to pass on to an anonymous “trustee.” Any money passed gets tripled by the experiment, at which point the trustee can choose how many rounds of the game, with different people each time, sometimes as truster , sometimes as the trustee.

Behavioural economists use this game often, but the novel twist in this study was to reveal one piece of real, true personal information about the trustee to the trustee to the trusters, before the trusters made their initial decision to trust. The information was taken from questionnaires that all subjects had filled out weeks before. In some cases, the truster learned the trustee’s level of religiosity, on a scale of 1 to 5. When trusters learned that their trustee was religious, they transferred more money, which shows that these Germans held the same belief as did Locke (about religious believers being more trustworthy). More important, the religious trustees really did transfer back more money than did the nonreligious trustees, even though they never knew anything about their trusters. The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people.

There is actually some real life historical evidence that corroborates this experiment.

Many scholars have talked about this interaction of God, trust, and trade. In the ancient world, temples often served an important commercial function: oaths were sworn and contracts signed before the deity, with explicit threats of supernatural punishment for abrogation. In the medieval world, Jews and Muslims excelled in the long-distance trade in part because their religions helped them create trustworthy relationships and enforceable contracts. Even today, markets that require very high trust to function efficiently (such as a diamond market) are often dominated by religiously bound ethnic groups (such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), who have a lower transaction and monitoring costs than their secular competitors.

This is good evidence that religion does serve a useful purpose. Haidt put it this way:

“So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to Mafia. Do religions help their practitioners by binding them together into a superorganism that can prey on-or at least turn their backs on –everyone else? Is religious altruism a boon or a curse to outsiders?”

My conclusion is simple: People trust religious people! And that is actually quite important. It helps people to do good things together!

Religion is a Team Sport


In his book The Righteous Mind,  moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt described religion as a team sport. Haidt compared it to the devoted fans at  universities’s football games. E.O Wilson used a similar analogy to describe ants as what he called eusocial creatures.

Haidt also says such religion is not irrational as many atheists, like the first two I mentioned, assert. Haidt explains that this must have had an effect on our evolution as a species. He calls this evolution by group selection.  I want to point out that evolution by group selection I believe is still controversial. It does not accord with classic Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Religion in a various formats has been around for thousands of years. Such activities over thousands of years must have had some genetic effect, he argues. Is religion hard-wired into us? Is religion baked into our DNA?

This is how Haidt explained it:

“If human groups have been doing this sort of thing since before the exodus from Africa, and if doing it in some ways rather than others improved the survival of the group, then it’s hard to believe that there was no gene-culture coevolution, no reciprocal fitting of mental modules to social practices, during the last 50,000 years. It’s particularly hard to believe that the genes for all those by-product modules sat still even as the genes for everything else about us began changing more rapidly, reaching a crescendo of genetic change during the Holocene era, which is precisely the time that gods were getting bigger and more moralistic. If religious behavior had consequences, for individuals and for groups, in a way that was stable over millennia, then there was almost certainly some degree of gene-culture coevolution for righteous minds that believe in gods and then used those gods to create moral communities.”


Nicholas Wade says it is obvious from looking at these ancient religious practices that they helped groups of people to compete with other groups. He explains the logic of group selection for religious practices this way:

“People belonging to such a [religiously cohesive] society are more likely to survive and reproduce than those in less cohesive groups, who may be vanquished by their enemies, or dissolve in discord. In the population as a whole, genes that promote religious behavior are likely to become more common in each generation as the less cohesive societies perish and the ore united ones thrive.”

Religion survives because it confers an evolutionary advantage on the groups that employ it. Nature selects those groups that are religious!

Isn’t this exactly what sport’s coaches have been preaching for years? Effective teams are more effective than good individuals. Or as Haidt says, “religion is a team sport.”

Haidt says, “Gods and religions in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. Like maypoles and beehives, they are created by members of the group, and they then organize the activity of the group.”

When groups are able to develop cohesion and trust they can accomplish much more than they could without it. Like the mountainside farmers in Bali I mentioned in an earlier post.

Haidt says that 10,000 years is enough time for such genetic changes to take place, “And 50,000 years is more than plenty of time for genes, brains, groups, and religions to have coevolved into a very tight embrace.”

Haidt says this account of religions (note it is not an account of any one religion in particular, but it could include your favourite religion) has important consequences. Haidt puts it this way:

“In Wilson’s account, human minds and human religions have been coevolving (just like bees and their physical hives) for tens of thousands of years. And if this is true, then we cannot expect people to abandon religion so easily. Of course people can and do forsake organized religions, which are extremely recent cultural innovations. But even those cannot shake the basic religious psychology of…doing linked to believing linked to belonging. Asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon, can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.”


Now some of my faithful readers may not like this concept of an evolving religion. On the other hand, one of them has already mentioned that religions evolve, not just people. You may insist on a religion that has been absolutely true without changes for centuries. Just like some people resist the idea that people, or other creatures, evolve at all. Others may find this evolutionary explanation more congenial. What about you?