Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reproduction Favors Religion--The Darwinian Link

Mary Eberstadt has an article in Policy Review entitled "How the West Really Lost God." Proponents of the "secularization thesis" argue that modernity brings atheism, because the spread of "Enlightened" education will bring to more and more people the news announced by Nietzsche that "God is dead." There are some problems with this idea, however. Although proponents of secularization generally assume that this is an improvement in the human condition, it has been noticed that decline in religious belief is connected to declining fertility. Particularly, in western Europe, where "secularization" seems most evident, declining birth rates are creating a social crisis, because the present generation is not producing enough children to replace themselves. One explanation is that declining religious belief creates declining birth rates, because atheists are less inclined to have and care for lots of children. So here it seems that secularization is socially harmful. Another problem, however, is that the secularization thesis can't explain why one of the most "modern" countries--the United States--is also one of the most religious.

To resolve these issues, Eberstadt argues that the causal arrow might point in the opposite direction for many people--it's not that people produce lots of babies because they're religious; rather, they are religious because they are producing lots of babies. She suggests, for example, that the history of secularization in Europe could be explained this way, because, historically, low rates of fertility in various European countries preceded the drop in religious practices.

Thus, Eberstadt is offering an anthropology of religion based on the biology of the "natural family." Giving birth, caring for children, and forming families are elemental experiences for human beings throughout history in all societies. This universal experience teaches us that there is something greater than ourselves--the perpetuation of our offspring and our families--and this opens us up to the thought that there is transcendent reality that is captured by religious belief. After all, religion is not for most people a purely intellectual and solitary decision. It's a social activity. We're religious because our religion is part of our family and the extended community of family ties.

This might also explain, Eberstadt suggests, why women tend to be more religious than men--because women are more immediately and deeply affected by having children than are men.

As I have suggested in some previous posts, the Bible shows this connection between religion and reproduction. Whenever Moses has to give some explanation as to why the Jews should obey his laws, he tells them that if they obey, they will live and propagate themselves with numerous offspring (see, for example, Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

While Eberstadt recognizes the biological ground of this connection between reproduction and religion, she does not see that she is implicitly making a Darwinian argument. In fact, her argument is very similar to what David Sloan Wilson says about religion as an adaptation of cultural group selection in which religious belief helps believers to work together as collective units, so that family ties are reinforced and extended through the group.

One should also notice that like Wilson, Eberstadt concentrates on the practical benefits of religion rather than its theological doctrines. For Wilson (and for Darwinians generally), the "vertical" dimension of religion (beliefs in supernatural agents and supernatural afterlife) is a proximate means to secure the "horizontal" dimension (practical rules for cooperation) as the ultimate end. Eberstadt says nothing about the theological truth or falsity of any particular religion, because what counts for her is the practical truth of reinforcing good social order in supporting the natural family. The concern here is with the social or moral effects of a religion, regardless of its doctrinal claims.

This preoccupation with the practical effects of religion is the proper conservative stance. That's why conservatives can agree on the practical benefits of religion even when they disagree about whether any particular religion is superior in its theological truth to any other. So you can have conservative Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Mormons working together, even though they disagree in their doctrinal creeds. You might even have skeptical conservatives (like Friedrich Hayek or Michael Oakeshott) who agree on the moral importance of religious traditions, but without necessarily accepting their theological doctrines.

Eberstadt lists Darwin along with Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as intellectuals who proclaimed that "God is dead." But in fact, as I have often argued, Darwin never openly spoke against religious belief. He was probably a skeptic by the end of his life. But he never professed atheism. And he spoke often (in THE DESCENT OF MAN and elsewhere) about the importance of religious belief for moral progress.

Conservatives like Eberstadt who make so much of the connection between reproduction, the natural family, and religious belief should recognize that they are making a Darwinian argument, which should be part of the case for Darwinian conservatism.


Kent Guida said...

On a related subject: I think I speak for all your readers (indeed, for all mankind!)in asking for your comments on the new book by Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: a brief economic history of the world.
It seems like an important book to me, with many DNR angles. I'm sure your comments will be most enlightening.
Best regards,
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...

Thanks, Kent, for the suggestion. I have heard about this book. Once I have had a chance to read it, I'll offer some comments.

From what I've heard about Clark's book, it sounds like his argument would be pertinent to what I have called "Darwinian political science" in my APSA paper.

Tony Bartl said...

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the birthrate of established Americans (i.e. not recent immigrants or their children) have birthrates below replacement, and that it is only through immigration and high birthrate among, for the most part, the latino community, that keeps our population on the rise. Might this not be an important consideration for this thesis?

Tony Bartl said...

Sorry for the poorly constructed sentences. I wrote that one in a hurry.