God is a stress reaction

Being Human

An interesting article in the WSJ today about how belief in God is not innate.

Because humans are hard-wired for religion, it must be reformed rather than refuted to better fit the modern world.

People are genetically preprogrammed to be pious because it confers a selective advantage that enhances reproductive success.

If it were so hard-wired, it would be more universal, surely? Unless we’re suggesting it’s only hard wired in some people, an accident of parental convergence like blue eyes, or a disease like Down’s syndrome.

So what is it a factor of?

A growing body of psycho-sociological research has already overturned conventional wisdom as it uncovers the actual leading cause of popular faith: dysfunctional socioeconomic conditions […] It has long been known that prosperity and security tend to suppress religiosity—that’s why the Bible warns against the spiritual dangers posed by material wealth […] The U.S. has the highest financial inequality, is the only Western country without universal health coverage and scores the lowest on the Successful Societies Scale. In no other advanced democracy are cities afflicted by such high rates of murder and juvenile mortality, or are ordinary citizens subject to sudden financial ruin because of overwhelming medical bills.

So that’s that question answered. Belief in God gives the hopeless hope.

The question that remains is why is Islam doing so well? The article suggests that part of the reason is the birth rate, and quite right, too. I can think of one other (less) reasonable explanation. (It’s pretty crappy reasoning, too, but then if you’re happy with ‘God’ as an answer, you’re going to be subject to that kind of error.)

  1. It’s a risk thing. People in more secure countries believe less in God and attend mainly as Christmas-Easterians. They still tend to describe themselves as Christians, though, never fully forsaking their belief. Why? You could reason that since non-believers go to hell, and obeisance comes at such low cost, that it makes sense it maintain a nominal belief so that you can survive St.Peter’s interrogation at the pearly gates.
  2. But which God? If you’re going to believe in a God, which one should you believe in? There are lots to choose from. The Christian God is believed to be forgiving and all-knowing, so not only is she going to see through your pseudo-belief, she’s also going to forgive you for trying to trick her. So there’s no need to believe in this God. What about the thunder God, Thor? If we’re doing a risk assessment we should consider likelihood of occurrence: no one believes in Thor any more, so the chances are that he never really existed; following that logic, we should spend our time mitigating the risk against the religions which are most popular and most long lasting. And from that shortlist there’s only one who’s really very likely to send you to hell, and that’s Allah.
  3. So if you’re going to take Pascal’s wager, go for Islam.

Anyway, it’s good to see this being talked about in the USA. The media pressure on the Pope is good to see, too. It feels like that time in the electoral cycle where journalists spill all the dirt they have on the incumbent Government forcing it to collapse. Religion has served its purpose and is now getting in the way. It’s 2010, let’s kick away the crutches and get going.

WSJ via ViewsFlow

Update 12th April:

The Successful Societies Scale came up with these very interesting graphs:

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


  1. Hey Ed,

    Enjoyed the post, and the WSJ article.

    Yes, absolutely, religion is a stress-reactor, and an attempt to feel control amid the uncontrollable (eg flood, drought, war etc). It is ‘magical thinking’ – a type of thinking we are prone to in extreme stress situations.

    However, religions also often contain many philosophical and cognitive techniques which genuinely help humans to cope with trauma, and which modern therapy now draws on in a secular context.

    This journalist talks about the ‘religious and cultural wars’ – the same kind of language of war between the secular and the religious that Dawkins, Hitchens and others use.

    I find this sort of black and white juxtaposition very unhelpful.

    In fact, if you ever go to therapy, as most people will at some point in their lives, then you will use therapeutic techniques that originated in religion, albeit now in a secular context. Our societies still rely on the psychological wisdom that was first built up in a religious context.

    In my opinion, we need to take the argument beyond ‘God versus not-God’, and see the common wisdom that both believers and non-believers can share.

    All best


  2. “..then you will use therapeutic techniques that originated in religion..” or were they pre-existing mechanisms which enabled a social group to function more effectively, which were then encoded into (and possibly built upon by) religion?

    How much more effective, developed and pervasive might these techniques be if they had matured in a humanist context? Look at the evolution of psycho-therapy in the pre-God age versus now.

    I would say that it’s still important to call time on God. Sure it may be interesting and help us understand where we’re at now and why, but we don’t have to believe in ideas in order to discuss them and benefit from them.

  3. Who are you to ‘call time on God’?

    To insist that no one believes in God is as fundamentalist as to insist that everyone believes in it.

    And the therapeutic mechanisms I am talking about are not just social, they are also cognitive.

    Basically, before the invention of secular psychology in the 18th century, the people who thought most about the mind and about emotions were religious prophets, saints and philosophers.

    They had a very good understanding of how emotions arise, and how we can transform them.

    We can learn a lot from these traditions, not just in terms of ‘how did we get here’ but also ‘how do we transform emotional problems like depression or anxiety, which still plague modern societies’.

    We don’t need to accept the existence of God to see there are useful things to learn from religions. I am not certain God exists or that there is an afterlife, but I still have been helped a great deal in learning how to cope with life from spiritual traditions like Stoicism, Buddhism, Sufism etc

    These are incredibly rich storehouses of psychotherapeutic wisdom, and it is Bolshevik to try and blow them up altogether.

  4. Who are you to ‘call time on God’?

    To insist that no one believes in God is just as fundamentalist as to insist that everyone believes in God.

    Look, modern societies may not ‘need’ God, but they still need ways to cope with anxiety, depression, addictions, and all the discontents of civilization.

    Before the invention of secular psychology, around the 18th century, the people who thought most about human emotions and how to transform them were religious prophets, saints and philosophers.

    They developed techniques and exercises which they experimented on themselves for hundreds of years.

    These exercises are now being tested out by modern, secular, empirical science and they’ve been found, in many cases, to be more effective than drugs like Prozac.

    So we’re still relying very deeply on the expertise and wisdom of religious traditions, whether we realize it or not.

    I personally have been very helped in my life by ideas and techniques from religious traditions like Stoicism, Buddhism, Sufism and Christianity, although I am not sure if God exists.

    To say we should simply abandon these incredibly rich storehouses of psychological knowledge and expertise is Bolshevik.

  5. I agree on all fronts. I wouldn’t outlaw God, but I’d at least encourage open debate about it, rather than fearing for social status as atheists do in the USA.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about how therapeutic techniques might develop in a post-God era.

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