Darwin’s Cathedral


Nowadays we often think of religion as dividing people. This is the dark side of religion. I will have more to say about this later. It is real and important. But for now I want to concentrate on the light side of religion. This is the side that atheists often ignore. And Haidt, I believe, is an atheist. I am not actually sure of that because nowhere in the book The Righteous Mind that I have been commenting on did he clearly say that.


In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson actually lists a number of ways in which religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper. There are many ways, but Jonathan Haidt emphasizes one amazing story. It is the story of rice farmers in Bali.

Rice farming is different from most forms of farming. It requires a lot of cooperation. They must work to create large rice paddies that can be drained at precise time during a planting cycle. As Haidt says, “It takes a cast of hundreds.”

Wilson described how rice farmers capture rainwater that would naturally flow down a steep mountainside. In Bali rice farmers have cooperated to create hundreds of terraced pools in steep mountainsides. According to Wilson, some of those mountains have hundreds of terraced pools. Each must release water into the next one at exactly the right time. How does such a system work?  Haidt says, “At the top of the whole system, near the crest of the volcano, they built an immense temple for the worship of the Goddess of the Waters. And that was the key to it all!”

The lowest level of social organization was what is called a subak, which is actually a group of several extended families that make decisions democratically. Imagine that a business run democratically! We in the west could learn a lot from the Balinese people. Each one of those subaks had its own temple with its own gods. How is that possible? Don’t competing religions have to fight? The answer of course, is why do they have to compete or fight? Actually that is a question not an answer but so what? Each subak then, after democratic decision making, had to do the hard work and they did it “more or less collectively.” Again, that’s important.

Traditionally groups where people have to share a limited resource don’t work well. The problem even has a name; it is so frequent. It is called the problem of the commons. Some people inevitably try to cheat. Let someone else pay for the commons while I take a short cut. Such problems are very difficult to resolve. In many places they lead to fights. Here the subaks each had their own god in their own temple at every fork in the irrigation system. According to Haidt this is how they solved the problem in Bali:

“The ingenious religious solution to this problem of social engineering was to place a small temple at every fork in the irrigation system. The god in each such temple united all the subaks that were downstream from it into a community that worshipped that god, thereby helping the subaks to resolve their disputes amicably. This arrangement minimized the cheating and deception that would otherwise flourish in a zero-sum division of water. The system made it possible for thousands of farmers, spread over hundreds of square kilometers, to cooperate without the need of central government inspectors, and courts.”

Of course, that last bit was going too far. Getting rid of courts meant getting rid of lawyers. Imagine replacing lawyers and courts with gods. This is insane. But incredibly it worked!

Haidt asked some pertinent questions about this:

“What are we to make of the hundreds of gods and temples woven into this system? Are they just by-products of mental systems that were designed for other purposes? Are they examples of what Dawkins called the “time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, rituals, the anti-factual counterproductive fantasies of religion”?


Haidt enlists a powerful metaphor—the maypole. He asks us to imagine a woman with flowers in her hair dancing in a clockwise circle while she holds one end of a ribbon in her hand with one and the other end of the ribbon attached to a pole—a maypole. This is how Haidt describes it:

“She circles the pole repeatedly, but not in a neat circle. Rather, she bobs and weaves a few steps closer to or further from the pole as she circles. Viewed in isolation, her behavior seems pointless, reminiscent of mad Ophelia on her way to suicide. But now add in five other young women doing exactly what she is doing, and add in six young men doing the same thing in counter clockwise direction, and you’ve got a maypole dance. As the men and women pass each other and swerve in and out, their ribbons weave a kind of tubular cloth around the pole. The dance symbolically enacts the central miracle of social life: e pluribus unum.”

From many, one. The motto of the United States. What many believe is the magic of it’s success. It’s almost like magic. No not magic religion—the spiritual. According to Haidt,

“Whatever its origins, it’s a great metaphor for the role that gods play in Wilson’s account of religion. Gods (like maypoles) are tools that let people bind themselves together as a community by circling around them. Once bound together by circling, these communities can function more effectively.”


This is what religion is all about. As David Sloan Wilson puts it: “Religions can exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”

This is what religion once did, should do, but doesn’t often do anymore. Now—too often—religion divides rather than connects. That’s why some say God is dead. He doesn’t have to be. You can kill him or bring him back to life.

According to Haidt, relying on Wilson,

“this kind of circling and binding have been doing this for more than 10,000 years. You don’t need moralistic high gods thundering against adultery to bring people together, even the morally capricious gods of hunter-gatherers can be used to create trust and cohesion.”

And with trust and cohesion humans can do incredible things. Things they can never do as individuals. Incredibly good and powerful things; and, of course incredibly bad things.

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