Beliefs that are rather obviously not true at all thrive, and so we should perhaps ponder over the question – why it is like this?
The geneticist Steve Jones (pictured above) makes a rather interesting observation regarding beliefs and identifies one good reason. While speaking about this at the Hay Literary Festival, a reporter thought, “Hey that’s interesting”, and so we have an article in the Telegraph that explains …
Professor Jones said history had proven that religion grows rapidly during large population booms, particularly in poorer countries.
He argued that rapid growth in Africa could spark a new resurgence of major religions like Christianity.
However in increasingly atheist countries in Europe people are no longer reproducing in sufficient numbers to avoid population decline, he told the Hay Literary Festival.
… In his new book The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science, Prof Jones, who also writes for the Telegraph, studied the evolution of religion.
He believes that the great religions of the Middle East first developed when hunter-gatherers became farmers and began practicing crop fertility rites to improve the harvest.
Farming was invented in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago and spread rapidly. It reached Europe about 7500 years ago, and continued to expand westwards.
When God banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden in Genesis he told them: ‘In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread.’
Prof Jones claims the story is symbolic of the moment when humans settled into farming communities for the first time.
“We see a time of social and biological change and the rise of the great religions.
“It seems pretty clear that religion began at exactly the time when communities were beginning to farm.”
Now for the record, he is not religious, so his motivation here is quite genuine and does not have any specific religious agenda to it. He is of course a geneticist and so that explains how he is looking at all of this.
And indeed yes, the beliefs that have thrived have done so, not because they are true at all, but rather because they granted those that embraced the belief a distinct survival advantage, and clearly one specific advantage was that they tended to have far more kids than non-believers or other competing beliefs and so simply out-breed them.
Is rationality a lost cause?
Does this imply that being rational is pointless because it will always be like this?
Actually no, there are also other factors, new ones, that are now in play, and so clearly the environment has changed in various ways that beliefs may not be capable of adapting to, hence they may indeed continue to wither.
Firstly, there is a rising tide of prosperity and also education, and so the patches of ground in which irrational beliefs thrive (poverty and ignorance), are shrinking with each passing day.
Secondly, in the past decade an astonishing change has taken place. A vast new flow of information has been opened up, one that I would argue will have an impact upon us that will be greater that the invention of the printing press – the Internet.
If you look back and observe what happens when the flow of information increases, you can see that it transforms us – rather obvious examples include our ability to communicate complex ideas to each other (speech), our ability to persist information for others to consume at any time (writing), our ability to rapidly replicate in bulk persisted information so that millions can consume it (printing), our ability to ensure the good ideas and facts get passed to the next generation (the rise of universal education), and now we have taken yet another astonishing step and opened up our entire collective knowledge (not just the gems, but also the crap) so that everybody can access any of it and search it almost instantly from anywhere on the planet, and also communicate with each other despite language barriers (the Internet).
This latest one, the Internet, is a truly disruptive technology – that means that it dramatically alters things that it touches and that includes business models (how we buy things, how we consume information, how we learn, etc…).
It is also proving to be a rather disruptive for beliefs as well, and so we now observe that while beliefs might indeed persist within older generations, there is also a rising younger generation that is not so invested, not religious and a lot more skeptical. The older generation can’t let go easily because individuals are so heavily invested in beliefs culturally and emotionally, but with time, they will pass and the younger less religious generation will dominate.
Bottom Line: From the historical viewpoint Steve Jones is right, beliefs outbreed non-beliefs and so they thrive, … but … I would also argue that something very dramatic has happened within just the last decade that changes and disrupts that pattern, there is now a greatly increased flow of information available to everybody, one that will give rationality a distinct advantage and enable it to thrive and potentially dominate.
The book in question, The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science, can be found here, and I note has some very good reviews