Last updated on 20 Feb 2014
If, as I argued in the last post, believers believe silly things in order to make the community cohere in the face of competing loyalties of the wider community, why is it that they believe the things they believe?
For example, you will often see Jews attempt to argue that kashrut (kosher, in Yiddish) dietary rules make sense in arid environments where trichinosis was rife, and so on, but what is the reason why you can’t mix fabrics, or get tattoos? The reason appears to be that these marked the Jews out from their competing cultures. An approach taken by recent Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) scholars adopts the “costly signalling hypothesis” formulated in evolutionary biology by Amotz Zahavi and applies it to the cultural evolution of these kinds of displays. Zahavi’s hypothesis supposes that if an organism is signalling its toxicity to predators or genetic health to potential mates, it can easily fake those signals. Evolution, however, is a hard mistress, and will weed out these easy-to-fake signals over the long term, as any variant predator or mate that tricks on a way to detect fakes will spread rapidly through the population, causing an arms race. So in the long term, signals of whatever property is being signalled will have to become hard to fake. Zahavi suggests that behaviours like stotting will have to honestly signal the fitness of the organism.
So there are several properties for a costly signal. One is that it costs more to fake than to simply have the right property. Another is that it must correlate with the right varieties. Another is that it must be arbitrary: it should not be a trait or behaviour that is selectively advantageous, or many different varieties or organisms will trick upon it, and it will not therefore correlate. So an honest, costly signal is an arbitrary signal.
CSR researcher Richard Sosis proposed that many of the doctrines and institutions of religions are such costly signals. Kashrut is arbitrary, because it has one function: to mark out, uniquely and honestly, Jews from their (genetically related) neighbours. This is not biological evolution, but cultural evolution – what evolves are institutions, rituals and behaviours. They function as what I call “tribal markers”. They include accents, languages, dress, diet, and a host of other things. Consider the ban on pork by Muslims and Jews: here is an easy to raise food resource that is foregone to identify themselves. It is hard to fake if food is not plentiful. Circumcision and scarification among various groups is another kind of costly signal. People can die from these rituals. That is the ultimate genetic cost.
So the reason why (or if you prefer a pluralist approach, a major reason why) religions have these silly beliefs is that they serve to honestly signal identity. But this doesn’t explain why they have these silly beliefs. And extending the argument to all kinds of belief-systems, it fails to explain why belief-groups settle on the particular beliefs they do as the tribal markers of identity.
One suggestion is that these are simply contingently adopted. For example, the use of some “shibboleth” like abortion or the use of tattoos or tassels may be a simple matter of an idea being proposed at the right time and taking off, as a fashion, so long as it involves all the right costs. There may be no other reason for it. “Shibboleth”, by the way, is an example from the Tanakh:
And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the E’phraimites. And when any of the fugitives of E’phraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an E’phraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the E’phraimites. [Judges (Shoftim) 12: 5–6]
The word used, “shibboleth” means the seed or fruit bearing part of a plant. The specific meaning is irrelevant here, and it’s adoption is due to accent differences between the E’phraimites and the Jews, which has all the costly signalling characteristics: it is arbitrary, and hard to fake (as every American actor finds out when called on to do a foreign accent). Since then, a shibboleth has been a costly signal.
But there are other reasons why a tribal marker might be the thing it is. For example, it may be that the marker arose at a time of conflict between groups. Denial of global warming arose as an in-group identity marker when those raising the issue were seen to be challenging some core values of conservatives and those who benefited from the coal and oil industries (for example, employees of those industries and their friends and families). It was not arbitrary in that dispute, although the signal might have been something else. Once entrenched, the signal becomes a “frozen accident”; it is now entrenched in a developmental sequence of belief acquisition, and to remove it would seriously disturb the development of “right thought and action”, as the Buddhist tradition calls it in the Eightfold Path.
A third reason might be cynical intervention by rulers and thought leaders. For example, few think that reasonable conservatives (I would like to say here that I know many such beasts) have reasons for thinking global warming is a hoax now, least of all those whose personal interests are maintained by the offending industries. Yet many do. It may be that on the part of the majority of these people this is simply a matter of division of labour: authorities think that it is a hoax, and I don’t have the time to investigate the matter myself. So why do these authorities think this? Possibly they don’t, but it suits their social and economic interests to act as if they do. This is very old. Cynical manipulation of followers can be found as a strategy in Aristotle and Machiavelli.
Also he [the tyrant] should appear to be particularly earnest in the service of the Gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and has a reverence for the Gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and they are less disposed to conspire against him, because they believe him to have the very Gods fighting on his side. [Aristotle, Politics. Bk 5, ch XI]
Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. [The Prince, chapter 18]
Once a signal has been proposed, cynically or otherwise, then it will spread to the extent that it acts as a useful marker. That is, just so far as it identifies honestly a member of the in-group. Rarely (in my opinion), the marker or signal will be something that bears directly upon the core beliefs of the belief-group. For example, modern western conservatism has as one of its stated values the freedom of the individual from government intervention, yet many of the signals, such as abortion or marriage, involve direct government intervention in people’s private lives. Justifications are given that are post hoc and ad hoc. Likewise, commitment to free market economics are set aside when special interests benefit, through subsidies and interventions or tax exemptions of failing industries. Likewise, social progressives often adopt economic policies that serve the interests of industry rather than their putative constituency, working people.
So costly signals for in-group identity are often contrary to the beliefs the group holds most dear. Abortion, for example, was not a core issue for evangelicals until they made common cause with Catholics in the early 1970s (see Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God for an account of this). But once it took root, rational debate became impossible. And this is because it is not about the idea, but about the community. As Sosis noted about religion, it is not about God, but about us.
1. But this fails to explain why the neighbouring tribes did eat pork, since they lived in the same environment.