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Question: Do religious or moral strictures help or hurt an individual from an evolutionary standpoint?

Lionel Tiger:
Well there is…  In the primates there is a fairly consistent pattern of dominance yielding more offspring and so the dominant male in a baboon or chimp group will have more sexual access to the females in part because he will drive away rivals and he is able to because he is strong or he is more cunning and he will have more offspring and there are of course legendary tales of emperors and kings and dictators who have had many, many wives or mistresses or women anyway and they have more offspring, so from the point of view of the hard eye of nature having more offspring is good if you can sustain the costs, but the average human being can have barely one or two or three or four children and it is a difficult responsibility to take care of them.  Sometime in Europe we shifted to the kind of nuclear family model and we’ve… Maybe we did that because of the industrial system which requires that people be mobile and able to move to where the work is and then they go there with their wife and children or their husband and children and then they take care of them, but what is involved in raising children is of course an immense set of endless responsibilities and tasks.

Many religions put a lot of stock in exclusivity and look down on non-believers. Why is this?

Lionel Tiger:
Many religious people actually wear amulets on their body to indicate, if only to themselves, that they’re Catholic, they’re Jewish, they’re Muslim, they’re whatever and humans are group animals.  You can’t live alone and we’re not equipped to be alone.  As a consequence whatever affiliation we have we tend to celebrate and to assert and so it’s a mystery why a Catholic or say two Christians, Lutheran and Baptist will be in disagreement about some fundamental issues and in some cases as with the Sunni and the Shiites they’ll actually kill each other for reasons which have to do with something that happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  Nobody remembers why, but the idea of identity that is associated with religion is sufficiently important to so many people that they are prepared to get punished, incarcerated for their religion because somehow religion becomes associated with the essence of self and it’s a mystery if you will how that happens, but people will do things as you suggested, for religion that they wouldn’t do for anything else.  After all, if you’re a holy warrior and you’re wanting to kill somebody because they’re not of your religion it’s hard.  Killing people is difficult unless you can just blast them with a big weapon, but if you have as in the early days of religious wars where you have to actually go up to somebody and cut their throat or beat them up or do something that is hard work and generally people do not want to be killed and so they fight back and so you’ve got quite a struggle going on when all you’re trying to do in your mind is perfecting the world for God or your god.  It’s a very interesting question why that happens.

Question: From an evolutionary perspective, are some religions better than others?

Lionel Tiger: It does seem that some religions are somewhat more peaceful than others, which is in principle a good thing except that they may then get overwrought or overrun by more truculent religions and that has happened.  We’ve seen it repeatedly.  It’s almost certain that some religions are better than others in the sense of providing a peace of mind, a sense of social comfort, a sense of decency than other religions.  One of the interesting things about the Christian religion is the notion of original sin or the Catholics especially, so that you’re born bad and you’ve got to kind of work off your badness through your lifecycle.  That is a very interesting idea why that should be and why that should have worked, but it has.  You have only to read one of the most important scientific texts on the subject, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he is confronted by the contrast between his own sexuality and Roman Catholicism in Ireland to see how turbulent this whole thing is.

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, September 08 2010


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