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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Atheism doesn’t have the disadvantages that religious groups claim

There has been a swathe of dubious reports recently about the supposed benefits of religion – how it makes you healthier, happier, less anti-social and ensures that you grow better tomatoes.

Now we are seeing the opposite claims beginning to emerge. A new study published in Trends in Cognitive Science finds that religion may have evolved as a by-product of non-religious, cognitive processes, dispelling a competing theory that religion served as an adaptation to help unrelated individuals cooperate.

The findings, published on Monday, suggests that people’s gut instinct for what is right and wrong operates independently of religious upbringing.

Harvard psychology professor, Marc D. Hauser, who co-authored the study, argues that from an evolutionary perspective, cognitive mechanisms involved in moral decision-making precede organised religion. “Morality is far more ancient than religion,” Hauser said. “Most, if not all, of the psychological ingredients that enter into religion originally evolved to solve more general problems of social interaction.”

Hauser claimed the findings help explain recent studies indicating that people’s moral intuitions vary little across different religions.

To illustrate the universality of certain moral intuitions, Hauser presented two hypothetical options for saving a group of seven people in a closed room – pressing a button to divert poisonous gas from the room or pushing a person into a ventilation shaft to stop the gas from reaching the room. “Far fewer people would say [the latter] is permissible, regardless of religious background,” Hauser said.

In cases of moral judgment that fall outside the norm — martyrdom, for instance — Hauser and co-author Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies propose that religion, much like legal institutions, exerts its own pressure on people’s moral judgments after it emerged from natural cognitive processes.

Though Hauser said he anticipates negative reactions to his apparent down-playing of religion’s significance, the study’s purpose was not to cheapen religion. “To those who find meaning in religious experience, I have nothing either positive or negative to say,” he said.

Hauser and Pyysiäinen add that their findings are not meant to explain religion, but to deny the claim that “all aspects of religion emerged at once at some point in history.”

Another study, published in Society and Ageing from the Cambridge University Press, looks at whether religion helps people cope better with ageing and was carried out by Peter J. Wilkinson and Peter G. Coleman.

Although a variety of research projects have been conducted on the benefits of religious coping in older adults, no direct comparison between atheism and religious faith has been published. The study reported in this paper tackled this issue by interviewing two matched groups of people aged over 60 years living in southern England, one of 11 informants with strong atheistic beliefs, and the other of eight informants with strong religious beliefs. Five paired comparisons were undertaken to examine the role of the content of the belief system itself in coping with different negative stresses and losses commonly associated with ageing and old age. The pairs were matched for the nature of the loss or stress that the two people had experienced, but the two individuals had opposed atheistic and religious beliefs.

The analyses showed that all the study participants — regardless of their beliefs — were coping well, and suggested that a strong atheistic belief system can fulfil the same role as a strong religious belief system in providing support, explanation, consolation and inspiration. It is postulated that the strength of people’s beliefs and how those beliefs are used might have more influence on the efficacy of coping than the specific nature of the beliefs.

The authors say further research into the strength of belief systems, “including atheism”, is required to test and elaborate this hypothesis.

Published Fri, 12 Feb 2010