16 October 2005

Could religious belief be genetic and is it any good for us?

There have been two articles in the Guardian this week that have both made very poignant arguments about religion.

Robert Winston in his article 'why do we believe in god' argues that tendency to religious belief is genetic.

The other article, 'my heroes are driven by god, but I'm glad my society isn't.' by George Monbiot asks the question, 'Are secular societies better than religious ones?'; and answers a resounding 'yes they are'.

In the first article, Winston cites research done by Thomas Bouchard, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, comparing identical twins seperated at birth with others. They showed that these genetically identical people showed similar propensities when it come to belief and non belief when compared to non-genetically related people.

"Bouchard has consistently found in many of his studies that intrinsic religiosity -which seems to incorporate a notion of spirituality - is much more likely to be inherited. Extrinsic religiosity tends to be a product of a person's environment and direct parental influence. Bouchard also found that tendencies towards fundamentalism were also rather more likely to be inherited."

Winston makes the important distinction between 'intrinsic' religious belief and 'extrinsic' belief.

Extrinsic religiosity means those who pretend to believe in God for self serving reasons and social advantage, whereas intrinsic religiosity means those who actually do believe in God.

The distinction is important because Winston cites a report that shows that 'intrinsic' believers suffer better mental health and are less prejudiced than 'extrinsic' believers. The report offers no comparison between 'intrinsic' believers and atheists. Which is a pity but I would hazard a guess that atheists enjoy better mental health and are less prejudiced than extrinsic believers.

In evolutionary terms it is quite straightforward to see how supernatural belief could have been an advantage for our ancestors in terms of binding communities together, encouraging co-operation and altruism. This is exactly what Winston argues in his article and I would generally agree this is highly plausible. For this to be true it would however have to overcome the significant costs of religious belief - martyrdom, sacrificial suffering and waste of resources, i.e. building extravagant monuments to gods etc.

I would argue that in a time of limited scientific knowledge, the need for religion was much greater then than today. Indeed wouldn't we be better off without religion at all?

Which brings me on to the next article by George Monbiot. This article is full of statistics which show how life is worse in religious societies compared to secular ones. He cites research done by Gregory S. Paul in the recent edition of the Journal of Religion and Society.

"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion."

Monbiot concludes from this report;

"If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist."

For more reasons why you shouldn't believe in God, click here.


  1. I'd happily call myself an atheist, but I'm not sure about a lot of this. Just focussing on the Paul article, I had a look through and saw no statistics other than a feeble-looking chart. This guy here is a Christian, but he's also a statistician, and he blows the Paul article to pieces. Choice quote:

    This is simply inexcusable in a research project involving statistical analysis. I have never seen anything like this--either in my professional career or in my university studies of statistics and econometrics.

  2. He does seem to raise some question marks over the 'Paul' study BUT from looking at his other posts he seems to believe in 'Intelligent Design' being taught as part of science lessons. So I wouldn't place too much trust in what he says as being the truth, statistics degree or not.

  3. Neil Harding,

    I don't know where you got the idea that I support teaching ID in schools. I've never blogged on that particular controversy. But I *have* stated that I believe in evolution.

    As for disregarding my argument about statistics because you don't agree with my alleged view on some other topic, that's not a valid reason as a matter of simple logic.

    "Raise some question marks", you say. I showed that, as a matter of statistical methodology, Mr Paul's study is completely meaningless.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I apologise for the misunderstanding.

    I'm glad you believe in evolution theory. The reason I thought you believed in ID was this link you provide immediately below your 'Paul study' post.

    Anybody that believes in ID, would give me cause to doubt their other work in my opinion, because ID is obviously ridiculous. But I apologise for misunderstanding and labelling you in with that ilk.

    You have certainly come up with a number of valid criticisms of the 'Paul study' which seems to have been the only study done in this area of linking religion with social dysfunction. I accept that any correlation is not neccesarily a causation. You also criticise how countries were chosen and make a number of other points. I'll get back to you on this.