Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dysfunction Junction

John Wilkins (an excellent, if antipodean, philosopher of science) is fond of what might be called the "social glue" theory of religion, as expressed in a recent post at his highly recommended blog, Evolving Thoughts:

The crucial role of religion proper, I think, is to mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the "costly signaling" religion requires (a view of Richard Sosis and colleagues), from those who are more likely to cheat. Agriculture makes possible a society not based on close kinship, which makes religion the solution to that dilemma only after societies of that kind arise.

Craig T. Palmer, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri and Lyle B. Steadman, emeritus professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University have published a book, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success in which they claim that "the clearest identifiable effect of religious behaviour were the promotion of cooperative family-like social relationships -- including parent/child-like relationships between the individuals making and accepting the supernatural claims, and sibling-like relationships among co-acceptors of those claims."

As Palmer explained:

We noticed that communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim tends to promote cooperative social relationships. This communication demonstrates a willingness to accept, without skepticism, the influence of the speaker in a way similar to a child's acceptance of the influence of a parent.

Steadman added:

Almost every religion in the world, including all tribal religions, use family kinship terms such as father, mother, brother, sister and child for fellow members. They do this to encourage the kind of behaviour found normally in families - where the most intense social relationships occur.

In short, religions are enterprises that function as expanded families intended to promote kin-like cooperation across a larger group.

I suppose it is inevitable that some turn out to be dysfunctional families.

People say "family" like it's always a good thing. These people have apparently never heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Or been to a really rough family reunion.
An apposite choice of photograph to illustrate the post being, if I recognize it correctly, one taken after the Battle of Gettysburg? The American Civil War being one where families were split by some members supporting the North and some the South, where allegiance to the larger social or political 'family' overrode allegiance to the smaller, biological family.
I'm not sure what battle it was but it is, indeed, from the Civil War, where even the religious bond was overwhelmed, as noted so eloquently by Lincoln in his Second Inaugual:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

The other possible illustration I considered was some representation of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Never took pictures of our family reunions because it was too dangerous to have a camera, given the flying crockery.
Thanks for the reference, John. I will get a copy of this book, I think.
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