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Lionel Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense on the future of biotechnology.  An expert on the[…]

“People who are religious might well be healthier because they help each other more.”

Question: Are there things atheists do that provide the soothing effects that religion gives believers?

Lionel Tiger: There have been efforts to have essentially atheist religions.  One was utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number and that didn’t work because it didn’t have any good music.  There were really poor costumes, no great architecture and so on, so it becomes a kind of bureaucrat’s religion, but it is not very exciting.  Another effort was Marxism of course and the State would be the equivalent of the church and then the State would wither away and everyone would live in wonderful harmony with themselves and with nature and of course it turned out to be completely wrong because the communist model of human behavior was a wrong model and so we don’t for this… for this purpose we don’t have an adequate replacement if you will.  This is not to say there shouldn’t be one.  People can, in my opinion anyway, do whatever the hell they want, whatever the heaven they want, but the fact is that there is a poverty of effective intergenerational institutions that would do what religions do.  For one thing religions are very good about the life cycle which we all have.  We get born and there is usually a ceremony.  We have first communion or mitzvah or initiation or whatever.  We then get married and there is a ceremony for that.  We have children.  There is a ceremony for that and then we die and all of these absolutely general phases of life there is religion.  They have a plan.  They have a piece of the prayer book that deals with the issue.  They can usually provide a kind of array of social services at a relatively low cost because it is wholesale.  They’ve done if before and so that is one of the things that religions succeed in doing and while there are secular versions of that they don’t seem to be as prominent in many environments as the religious one.  Again, please understand.  I’m not suggesting people should be religious or shouldn’t be, but as a social scientist it’s my job to ask why are they religious when they are and many people are.

Are religious people healthier?

Lionel Tiger:
There is a mixture of evidence here.  For example, there are always these studies with somebody who is dying or has a bad illness and everyone is told to pray for so and so and the expectation is that they’ll live longer or that they’ll get cured.  Well that is very poor.  There is no real evidence that prayer in this sense, massive prayer helps an individual.  What may help, however, is personal optimism.  I wrote a book in 1979 I think called Optimism: The Biology of Hope because I was interested in how humans succeed in overestimating the odds in our favor and I concluded somehow that if you’re a hunter gatherer as we are you better get up in the morning and think it is a great day to catch an elephant because if you get up in the morning and you say I don’t want to catch an elephant today, I’m going back to sleep well unless you have an elephant in the freezer, which there wasn’t, you’re going to be very hungry by evening.  So there was I’m sure great selection for optimism in homo sapiens and the same is true in sexual selection.  My favorite statement on this comes not from Darwin, who actually understood the process, but from George Bernard Shaw who said, and you can use any combination that interests you, he said, “Love consists in overestimating the difference between one woman and another.”  And if you don’t make that overestimate, whether it is to a woman or to a man then you won’t get involved in the whole conniption of getting close to somebody and maybe spending your life with them and maybe having little replicates of yourselves, so optimism is important, but it is a personal issue.  Whether there is a kind of formal advantage to religion I don’t know except that when we have crisis, 9/11 or whatever several things happen.  People pray more.  They go to church and furthermore, as we could see especially in New Orleans after Katrina, the churches were there to help well before the government.  Now you could say the government was especially inept, but the fact is that religions are set up for this, so in that sense people who are religious might well be healthier because they help each other more.