God vs Big Brother

Does belief in God improve cooperation? In case you haven’t seen it yet, a new study published today in Nature says that the answer is yes (a better summary of the study is available at ScienceNews). The authors go on to suggest that “beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.” In other words, the apologists have been right all along – we can’t be good without God.

Last_Judgement_Fra_AngelicoThat is of course a sensationalized caricature of the study, but this isn’t really a surprising result given the data that we have already collected. For example, it has been well established that even just a subliminal hint that we’re being watched will yield more prosocial behavior. We’ve also seen that priming thoughts about God improves prosociality and that exclusion from a group decreases prosocial behavior. And on a related note, there’s good evidence that a belief in free will also increases prosociality. So the data has been pointing toward this conclusion for some time, but what does it really mean?

The evolution of God?

Another bolus of research indicates that we are innately predisposed to God belief. Where the theist claims this as evidence of God’s fingerprint on our subconscious, the naturalist has responded with theories of agency detection. The research above has nothing to do with detection of agents but may still be relevant to the question of an innate God belief. While the benefit of agency detection certainly makes sense in the “you’re better off running away even if it’s only a tiger 2% of the time” sort of way, there’s still a leap to the theistic conception of an omni-God. Could it be that in the millenia which have ushered in civilization, a sort of natural selection acting on cooperation has bolstered and tweaked that innate predisposition into one which favors an all-seeing, omnipresent God who encourages our cooperation under every circumstance?

Chaos in the absence of belief?

ChildAbuseChartThe nones are growing at a rapid clip. Do these findings mean that the rise of an unbelieving society will degenerate into moral chaos? It’s obvious that Pat Robertson and much of conservative Christianity thinks that is the case, but perhaps we can flip the question on its head and ask whether the rise of the nones has in part been facilitated by the replacement of God with something else. Consider the far reaching scope of surveillance, the ubiquiti of mobile audio and video capture and the advances in forensics over the years. In the absence of an immediate deterrent, the odds that we will still be held accountable for our actions has increased dramatically over the last few decades. I wager that this has not escaped our attention. But if we are to take Steven Pinker at his word, we have also become more prosocial over time. So unbelief is on the rise concurrent with a rise in prosociality. The research cited above would predict the opposite result – unless some alternative is taking the place of God. Despite all the concern about our loss of privacy, perhaps Big Brother is just what we need.

What do you think?



21 thoughts on “God vs Big Brother

  1. Hi Travis, I have done a bit of reading on all this, not because I think it tells us a lot about the truth of theistic belief, but because some very well-known atheists (who should know better) keep saying how nasty (both personally and socially) the effects of religious belief are, when the reality is clearly, more often than not, the opposite.

    It is obvious that, when dealing with human beings and human society, that many, many factors are involved in any behaviour. To test the impact of one factor requires standardising or controlling for all the other factors, something that is very difficult. But good studies try to do it. But with so many factors, it is mathematically obvious that many factors are only going to have a small percentage effect, though the combination of several factors may be larger.

    That is the problem with using Stephen Pinker’s simple statement and your statement “So unbelief is on the rise concurrent with a rise in prosociality”. The statements may be true, but the implications may be quite false. For example, religious belief is strongest where people feel least secure. This can be caused by high levels of crime, or wealth inequality, etc. In such circumstances prosociality can go down. But a drop in religious belief leads to a drop in a sense of meaning, which can lead to an increase in suicide.

    So even if we stop with just those factors, we can see that improving wealth equality can lead to both a reduction in religious belief and an increase in prosociality but an increase in suicide. You could draw all sorts of conclusions from that data, but if you weren’t careful, many of them would likely to be wrong. That means we need to draw conclusions from controlled studies, and not from national statistics.

    If you are interested, I have looked at all this in greater detail in Does religious belief make you more moral: a case study in misusing data? and Do religious believers have better health and wellbeing, like, really?.

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for weighing in. I completely agree that the determinants of behavior are wide and diverse and it is extremely difficult to analyze and identify all the relevant factors. I think, however, that you may have misunderstood the point of the post. Yes, my simple statement that “unbelief is on the rise concurrent with a rise in prosociality” was ignoring all those other factors, but it also wasn’t intended to imply causation. That is, it wasn’t intended to imply that unbelief improves prosociality. I tend to agree with you that this is false. Rather, the point of the post was that one of the factors which does demonstrably encourage prosocial behavior – let’s call it the “watcher factor” – has potentially become less dependent on religion due to a rise in the prevalence of other systems monitoring our behavior.

  2. Travis,

    Nice to see you posting again, you’ve beat me to it. I also read this study today, and I appreciate the way you tie in some of the science here. Here are a few comments. First, you might already know this, but the “nones” in Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey mostly (61%) believe in God (1). That’s not to say that the atheist and agnostic groups are not growing. They are.

    Second, I also think the relationship between religion and morality is fascinating and rather complicated. Because maybe the bigger issue is not whether belief in God is like living in the dystopian world with Big Brother or whether belief in God is adaptive for individuals or societies. The bigger issue is what is moral to begin with. The radical Islamist thinks God sanctions violent jihad, but this is clearly unconscionable to most theists.

    To complicate things, it can be argued that secular societies never gave up God. In Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton argues that the Enlightenment failed to replace God and that cultures and individuals simply shift to idolatry or fetishism when God is forgotten.

    Both of these factors mean we can’t predict the evolution of morality in post-Christian cultures. Who knows what gods there will be? Who knows what these will justify?

    Some of it is predictable to some extent. Europe is a model because it leads the way in secularization. We can expect diversity to become a bigger and bigger issue and government to expand. Private businesses will be forced to have diverse board members, politicians will be expected to be of certain identity (sex, gender, race) even if talent is sacrificed. Anti-discrimination and hate speech laws will challenge religious freedom, etc. The good news is that secularization does not entirely throw off Judeo-Christian values. We cannot necessarily expect violent crime rates to change if we go the way of Europe.


    (1) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/religious-nones-are-not-only-growing-theyre-becoming-more-secular/

    • Hi Brandon,
      Good to see that you’re still around as well.

      Regarding your second point, the psychologists get around this by sticking with prosociality, a behavioral property which the western world generally agrees coincides with most if not all of what we would consider morally good behavior. It’s also probably a safe assumption that prosociality spans the class of moral behavior which is most relevant to the success of a population, assuming there isn’t a God who is otherwise rewarding obedient populations.

      I won’t even pretend to suggest that I can predict the evolution of morality in an increasingly secular world, but I’m inclined to think that there is a human nature at the core that will keep us from drifting too far from the mean. Who knows, maybe we will even eventually develop scientific tools that identify the best ways to satisfy the moral facets of our nature so that we end up cultivating moral progress even in a relativistic framework. Maybe our nature is such that Big Brother is a necessary part of that recipe.

  3. Great post. I am glad I didn’t miss much while I was not active blogging. But like you I have been bouncing around a few ideas and hope to do more blogging.

    1) I think this is very difficult to parse out. There may indeed be too many confounding variables to say belief in God is pro or con to moral behavior. But nonetheless from a personal perspective I can say that my belief in God tends to make think I should act better. My lack of belief tends to make me think it doesn’t matter. But I tie my belief in God very closely with my belief in morals and their importance. That is not to say I act morally just because I fear judgment, or that I act morally because I think someone is watching me (although those likely play some role) but just that if I came about from a naturalistic explanation of the world then I think my notions of what is moral are drastically less significant and likely a bunch of bunk.

    Of course, there is the question of whether we are in fact really morally better if we are only acting better because we think someone is watching or we are forced to act that way due to laws. Christianity can play both sides of this. Sometimes it involves threats that will come from outside the person such as hell. But generally the aim is to change the person from the inside so they are freed from the desire to do evil. We don’t just want the thief to to not steal because he is afraid of the laws or public ridicule. We want the repentence/conversion to come from within.

    2) Societal views of morality do change. Of course we tend to think we are more moral than earlier generations. We by definition think our own moral views are better. I think my moral views are better than other peoples moral views or else I wouldn’t hold them. Sure some people might like a different view but on the whole the majority view of morality is going to be enforced through laws. As those views change so will the laws and therefor so will behavior. Would people of the past agree with our moral views? Will people of the future agree?

    Let me use Pinker as an example.

    You say this term “prosocial” behavior is supposed to equate to the morally good behavior.

    “Regarding your second point, the psychologists get around this by sticking with prosociality, a behavioral property which the western world generally agrees coincides with most if not all of what we would consider morally good behavior.”

    It’s interesting that Pinker’s graphs all seem to connect to violence. I suspect that our present society does view violence much more dimly than past societies. And his focus on violence fits our modern views. Are there never times when physical attack/war is warranted or even morally required? If we accept that there are indeed times when war is required then how does Pinker’s graph account for the wrongness of not entering the war?

    Freakanomics put forward the view that legalized abortion has lead to less crime. I think the argument has logic to it. But it also leads to a whole barrel of moral questions.

    “Both of these factors mean we can’t predict the evolution of morality in post-Christian cultures. Who knows what gods there will be? Who knows what these will justify?”

    Its very interesting question indeed. For example it seems to me that saying bad words is now considered very taboo. Radio stations will block out every bad word and movies no longer contain them in the quantity I see in everyday speech. Yet the songs and movies seem to portray the sexual promiscuity the words often denote no less often than they used to. Perhaps even more.

    In the states i think the “founding fathers” are often practically worshiped and often quoted for moral positions – as if we should care. What celebrities think also tends to carry weight on moral issues.

    • Hi Joe,
      Good to see you again. The observation that we tend to desire that people act morally “for goodness sake” rather than out of fear, or in want of a reward, is an interesting wrinkle. I’m not sure it is relevant to the “watcher thesis” but it would certainly make sense within the theory of a socially driven moral evolution, where a ‘genuinely good’ person is less likely to bring harm to the group than is a pretender.

      I see what you’re saying regarding prosociality. I take prosocial behavior to be that which works toward social harmony and against social conflict, but an objective assessment would require weighing various harmonies against various conflicts and their prospective consequences – and there isn’t a clear standard for that measurement. That said, it does seem to ease the task of making assessments in that it is easier to agree on the identification of harmony and conflict than to agree on identification of good and bad.

      • I suppose the wrinkle would not be relevant if we mean the watcher merely makes us “prosocial” as opposed to “good.”

        When you say that using this notion of “pro-social” behavior eases the task of making assessments, I would agree. But I also think it greatly reduces the worth of these assessments. The distinctions between good/moral and evil/bad/wrong/immoral are often very complex and I think this oversimplifies them. An aphorism often attributed to Einstein comes to mind: Concepts should be explained as simply as possible but not simpler.

        I would not be surprised if many authoritarian regimes were very “prosocial” but I do not think that makes them (or the people acting along with the regime) good.

  4. First of all, I agree with your “watcher” thesis. I think there’s something to that, whether one worries about a god, or whether one just doesn’t want to be found out by the rest of society.

    As far as how well God fits into that “watcher” role depends on what kind of god one believes in, as most the other commenters have alluded to. In the most conservative cases (fundamentalist Islam, Christianity, etc) belief in God seems to inspire all sorts of immoral behavior. It takes the form of severe judgments against non-believers and other out-groups, whether we’re talking about past events like the Crusades and Inquisition, or more modern aspects like jihad and Westboro Baptist. Even watching people at Trump and Cruz rallies can be frightening, and I’d imagine most of them believe in God, too.

    Ultimately, I think the biggest inspiration for morality and ethics comes down to simply putting serious thought into how we should live, the “meaning of life,” etc. I find that the kinds of people who take the time to have these kinds of discussions tend to be very kind, moral, sympathetic individuals, whether they believe in a god or not. I think the process of asking what we believe and why we believe it causes most of us to consider things from different perspectives, which creates empathy. Discovering that someone in another “tribe” really isn’t all that different from me helps me realize that they should be afforded the same rights and considerations.

    I guess I’m saying that what we think isn’t nearly as important as that we think.

    • There’s certainly a tension between the watcher thesis and tribalism. If I understand correctly, the study found that a shared belief in a punitive God led to cooperation, but the participants didn’t necessarily have rigid boundaries on their gods. Dogmatism would seemingly negate the effect due to confidence that one’s ‘true god’ wouldn’t act or judge on the behalf of the other person, who is following a ‘false god’.

      I think the biggest inspiration for morality and ethics comes down to simply putting serious thought into how we should live

      I would love to believe that this is true, and do in fact think that it is true in many cases. But there’s also overwhelming evidence that our moral behavior is highly malleable, from being primed by the smell of a bakery, to the compliance of the Milgram Experiments, to the social pressures and conditioning that lead whole nations to commit genocide. A particular poignant example that I recently saw was Derren Brown’s most recent special in which he tries to pressure somebody into committing murder by pushing them off a building. Definitely worth an hour of your time. It’s devastating to see just how easily we can be pressured into otherwise unthinkable acts.

  5. Travis, you raise a bunch of issues commonly found being proposed by theists and point out some of the research that supports various theistic interpretations of them, not least of which is the God vs Big Brother thesis. So let’s take them in order.

    The sensational caricature of the conclusion you make (In other words, the apologists have been right all along – we can’t be good without God) is the kind of leap that flies in the face of compelling evidence (the robust correlation between an increase in prosocial behaviour with a decrease in religious belief – directly contrary to the idea that social goodness (the ingroup cooperation research introduced in its favour) somehow correlates to belief in some God. What this study is actually demonstrating is increased cooperation between members of the ingroup (in this case a shared religious belief) that is then correlated to a Big Brother God kind of religious belief for that group. To extract from that conclusion support for the “we can’t be good without God” can only be rationalized if we first assume that the ingroup correlate is caused only by the religious aspect of the belief (which then appears a stronger correlate than religious belief in more benign kind of God) and not just another example of the typical shared group identity bias (for which there is much compelling evidence across many mammalian species). And I think the evidence for increased cooperation between individuals who share a group identity (speaking now of humans) is not factored out in this study but is assumed to be consistent amongst all religious groups examined. That assumption draws into question (and I think severs) the link to the root of the apologist’s claim; it’s not the object of some shared belief that matters; it’s the degree to which a belief is shared as a part of one’s identity to the ingroup that correlates much more strongly to increased cooperation. Perhaps belief in the degree of avarice from a brutal, vindictive, and petty God (typical of war gods like Yahweh, for example) can only be offset somewhat by greater cooperation between those who believe in such a mean-spirited and jealous divine critter and has nothing to do with the God aspect whatsoever.

    We are meaning-making machines. That’s how memories are made and stored: by various levels of meaning importance (and the strength and duration of the neurochemicals produced during different kinds of interactions). Again, it doesn’t matter if the meaning we liberally apply to virtually every aspect of our lives and the interactions we have with our environments is in fact true and reflective (and descriptive) of the environment itself; what matters is how much or little importance we place on the meaning we import from our brains and then apply to these interactions. To facilitate this application of meaning, we have the neural means to ‘put ourselves in the other’s shoes’ so that we can then produce meaning from the perspective of the Other using ourselves as the guide and then enable the means to predict intention and then act according to what we can now rationalize to be appropriate.

    Very often, we’re quite wrong.

    In other words, this method comes with benefits as well as costs. But the important thing to remember here is that this method necessarily involves assuming agency like ourselves – applied outside of ourselves (that’s why we may yell at the car for not starting when we have an important engagement, but we don’t really believe the car is an actual malicious agent… most of us, that is… but in that circumstance extend our frustration to the machine as if it were in fact a malicious agent when we know it isn’t(mostly)).

    Assuming agency is not synonymous with ‘believing in God’ as so many studies about extending agency outside of ourselves tend to suggest (even New Atheists have been known to yell at inanimate objects and would be horrified to think some people think this means they’ve demonstrated ‘belief in God’ by doing so). Moreover, such interactions in no way supports the truth value of the object of that exported agency, the descriptive truth value of the agency itself, evidence for that agency as if independent of us… as so many theists attempt to sell us based on this kind of research.

    But probably the biggest and most incorrect assumption made by many theists is that some lack of religious belief in a monothesitic God apparently means a replacement must be found for that pool of unused belief. This idea is whacked. This assumption is dependent on ‘belief’ of the religious kind to be a noun – an actual thing called ‘belief – rather than an adjective – a word or term we use to describe a level of confidence in the truth value of some statement. A lack of belief in poltergeists doesn’t mean a transfer of this belief to, say, belief in the memory power of water (homeopathy) or an increase in belief in the moon landing conspiracy theory. A lack of belief is simply a lack of confidence to grant much if any truth value to statements… including statements about some god. No replacement allocation of belief is necessary.

    • ~b,
      I think there may be some misunderstanding here.

      First and foremost, I think you’ve misunderstood the study when you say this study is actually demonstrating is increased cooperation between members of the ingroup … the evidence for increased cooperation between individuals who share a group identity … is not factored out in this study. As I understand it, the explicit intention of the study was to control for this and so to examine the effects of belief in a punitive god in isolation. I also don’t understand why you find this objectionable. As noted in my post, there is plenty of other studies which show that we are more likely to behave ourselves if we believe that someone or something knows what we’re doing and can hold us accountable.

      Second, I do not intend to defend the apologists’ interpretation of the data which infers a predisposition to forms of religious belief. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I am more interested in accounting for that data and seeing whether it makes sense within a naturalistic interpretation. If anything this isn’t supporting the theists position but rather weakens it by offering support for a natural explanation of “sensus divinitatis”.

      Lastly, I am not inclined to agree with the thesis that “no replacement allocation of belief is necessary”. Beliefs certainly do inform our decisions and behaviors. If there are certain outcomes which we value, and there is evidence that the incidence of those outcomes is increased by holding some general type of belief, then it would be in our best interest to encourage the acquisition of beliefs which can provide that facilitatory function. Note that I am not advocating tricking ourselves into believing a falsehood solely for the benefits which come from holding that belief, largely because I suspect that those benefits can be still be sufficiently realized with truth-directed beliefs that are based on a proper understanding of the nature of the relationship between the belief and the benefit. In general, holding beliefs which do not correspond with reality are more likely to carry consequences which negatively affect our ability to achieve the outcomes we desire, so the best course of action is to utilize an understanding of the belief-benefit relationship in such a way as to obtain the outcome while maintaining the truth-directedness of our beliefs. In this case I’m suggesting that the ubiquity of surveillance, forensics, etc.. may be such a mechanism.

      • Hey Travis, what I used was three steps of reasoning.

        The first was that this study is actually demonstrating is increased cooperation between members of the ingroup (in this case a shared religious belief) that is then correlated to a Big Brother God kind of religious belief for that group. So far, so good. That is the conclusion of the study when they say “the more that participants rated gods in their major religions as moralistic, all-knowing and punishing, the more coins they gave to same-religion strangers from far away. I’m not disagreeing. This is an example of increased cooperation between memebers of the ingroup.

        The second step was to point out that the thesis used by apologists “we can’t be good without God” can only be rationalized (from this study) if we first assume that the ingroup correlate is caused only by the religious aspect of the belief (which then appears as a stronger correlate than religious belief in more benign kind of God) and not just another example of the typical shared group identity bias. This matters more than kit may appear. I’ll get back to it.

        Thirdly, I said I think the evidence for increased cooperation between individuals who share a group identity is not factored out in this study but is assumed to be consistent amongst all religious groups examined (the importance of the role of the group identity being selected). They did not, for example, compare rates of giving to other kinds of strong group identities (let’s say homosexuals and the rates of donation to HIV/AIDS research versus dog owners and the rates of donation to local animal groups).

        That’s why I pointed out the assumption being made is the consistency of the group identity (being religious) is equivalent even if of different religions) to begin with… and then showing that those who believe in a “moralistic, all-knowing and punishing” kind of God give more to others in the ingroup.

        In other words, I don’t have a problem with the study itself nor the correlate they found; my problem relates back to step two upthread: there is no link between being a believer in a “moralistic, all-knowing and punishing” God and being ‘good’ to others generally… just towards the ingroup. The study doesn’t demonstrate why those who believe in a “moralistic, all-knowing and punishing” God may simply have a stronger sense of ingroup identity and so give more to their ingroup brethren than other religious folk give to theirs. That sense may not be a ‘good’ aspect at all.

        We don’t need a study to know that fear can be and is a powerful motivator. Might it be that those people who are more fearful donate more than those who are less fearful? To then assume that acting fearfully produces more ‘good’ behaviour than altruism alone for ‘doing the ‘right thing because one can’ (an admission made repeatedly by people awarded for heroism, usually with the addendum “Anybody would have done what I did”) is hardly demonstrated in this study. In fact, we do have good data that the less fearful populations are, the less religious they are. The less religious, the lower the rates of all kinds of antisocial behaviour. The lower these rates, the lower the need for public charities.

        I think promoting fear produces dysfunction in all kinds of areas of human interactions. And if this is what drives the religious to consider their actions ‘good’ – more fear – then what we really have is data that shows why social dysfunction and inequality is so much higher (because its symbiotic) in populations highly religious.

        I hope that clarifies what I’m saying.

      • That actually was a helpful clarification. I guess I was the one who had misunderstood you. I get your point that the study does not conclusively rule out ingroup favoritism, but I also don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that the sole factor is not ingroup favoritism when the ‘ingroup’ link is just a vaguely shared belief with faceless strangers. Fear may very well be a component of that additional factor, but I suspect that it goes beyond this and deeper in to the roots of a social heritage, where our desires for approval, inclusion, respect, etc… are all parts of the soup which shaped our moral sense and drove our development as cooperative creatures. When you are separated from others in the tribal sense, then the extension of those desires to influence our behavior with those outsiders requires a glue which is powerful enough to transcend that separation – and the god hypothesis does just that. Perhaps it is valid to say that a new ingroup has been formed by that glue, but that does not negate the unique power of the glue to overcome tribal barriers and bring about a result which would not have otherwise obtained.

      • I think closer in agreement than we are apart, save the idea where you say the unique power of the glue (a shared and – in this case – a coercive religious belief) to overcome tribal barriers and bring about a result which would not have otherwise obtained. I think the result is actually a solidifying, an ossification, of tribal thinking (an Us v Them distinction, compared to the enlightened version of I-am-the-Other and so there is only We). And it is tribal thinking that is very much at the root of many significant pernicious effects and is something that must be overcome if global solutions are to be found for global problems and globally instituted. Religion is the Mother Ship of tribal thinking… presuming that everyone will come either willingly of forcibly if necessary to ‘share’ a common religion. This presumption is at the very heart of a great many ongoing – in fact, never ending – conflicts. To overcome these divisions I think will require a global effort, an erasure through the promotion of reason and evidence of the divide, namely, coercive religious belief itself.

      • Yes, I think we mostly just disagree on the relative magnitude of the positive and negative impacts of religious belief, which is OK with me. I just caution that we need to respect the data and think carefully about these things and make sure we fully account for both the positives and the negatives when we consider the prospect of a godless society.

      • To be clear, yes, a godless society in the public domain is necessary. a godless or god-soaked society in the private of no concern to anyone.

  6. Hi Travis, just thought you might be interested in this post on the Science on Religion blog, which discusses the study you reference at the start, plus two others. If you don’t follow this blog, I recommend it. I have been following it for years. Connor Wood, the main writer, is doing a PhD in the science of religion and is very fair-minded (in my view), neither a believer nor a disbeliever, just an observer.

What do you think?

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