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Dangerous Experiments

Dangerous Experiments is the LabSpaces spot for guest bloggers. The purpose of the blog is to give new and old bloggers a space to experiment with blogging. If you'd like to contribute to this experiment, send us an e-mail or contact us on twitter at either @LSBlogs or @LabSpaces.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

This week's guest blogger is Michael Blume who did his dissertation in scientific studies of religions (German: Religionswissenschaft) about brain sciences & religion(s). Since then, he has focused on evolutionary studies of religion and therein especially on the interactions of religious traditions and fertility as well as gender issues. Besides writing books and articles, he's blogging at (English) and (German). You can find him on Twitter @BlumeEvolution


The idea that the biological trait of religiosity and the cultural traditions of religion(s) are a result of evolutionary history still seems to be shockingly daring and new to many. But in fact, it has been there from the very start of evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin, a learned theologian, was pretty clear about it: If evolutionary theory turned out to be true, it had to be able to explain the evolution of "natural" religiosity as well as of "cultural" religions. Thus, Darwin devoted a subchapter and several dispersed sentences of his eminent "Descent of Man" to the evolution of religious beliefs. And he was clear about his personal position that the evolutionary history and success of religion(s) neither disproved nor proved God's existence. From the start and to this day, evolutionary studies of religion(s) brought together atheists, agnostics and religious believers on the shared premise of empirical research and evolutionary theory.

After decades have been lost due to fruitless polemics between self-declared "Darwinists" and creationists (claiming insights into "intelligent design") the interdisciplinary field has reemerged and thrived since the late 1990s. To name just a few participants out of many: Neuroscientists such as Andrew Newberg delved into brain capabilities and activities like prayer, ritual and meditation. Evolutionary biologists such as David Sloan Wilson have re-discovered the importance of religious self-organization for evolutionary theory. Psychologists such as Deborah Kelemen, Jesse Bering and Ara Norenzayan excelled in ingenious experiments about human tendencies to assume the existence of superempirical agents ("spiritual beings" in Charles Darwin's terminology). Sociologists and anthropologists such as Richard Sosis and Montserrat Soler explored the cooperation-enhancing effects of rituals. Economists such as the late Friedrich August von Hayek and the contemporary Robert Rowthorn explored the correlations of religion(s) and demography.

Religion as a means to augment Cooperative Breeding

The latter field of research has been the one I have focused on during these last years. Among all established religious traditions, the more devout tend to have more children than their more secular peers even if other variables such as education, income or urbanization are controlled for.

A interesting point in case are Celibates, frequently working as “helpers at the nest” and ranging from various Shamans and Priests to Catholic Nuns, Buddhist Monks, Jain Ascetics and even some Amish teachers. By offering services such as brokering (and blessing) treaties and marriages, educating the young, healing the sick and symbolizing religious values, they are augmenting communal survival and reproduction. In fact, we have explored numerous religious traditions such as the Old Order Amish, the Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites, Mormons, Haredim Jews etc. that managed to retain high birth rates throughout subsequent generations. Not all religions did, but those who didn't (such as the Shakers) finally succumbed to cultural Evolution. In contrast, we still didn't find a single non-religious population which had been able to retain at least replacement level (two births per woman) for a century! Secularization is taking place constantly among our species - but it is leading into demographic implosion of the participating populations. We "evolutionists" are bringing up far more scientific arguments than the religious creationists - but they are bringing up far more children! And there's is a yet unresolved philosophic irony in there...

During these last years, I have been strongly impressed and encouraged by the scientific integrity of some colleagues such as Susan Blackmore shedding her "memetic" approach on religion(s) due to the empirical facts. My latest inquiries have been into the strongly underestimated, maybe even formative role of women in the evolutionary history of religiosity and religions. There's another old path started by David Hume's "Natural History of Religion" (from 1737!) leading to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's ingenious works on the role of cooperative breeding in human evolution. There's so much to be discovered in the rich field of evolutionary studies!

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Hi Michael,

Scientific and evolutionary studies of religions are fascinating- I hope you will expand on one particular subject for us. I would like to know more.

Michael Blume

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Hi Jade,


thanks for the kind comment! And yes, I try to write about evolutionary studies on religiosity and religions not only in publications (many of whom available at my homepage for free), but also in the web. And besides those scilogs I am publishing myself, I could imagine to do a guest post on specific topics now and then. Your lively interest is certainly encouraging, thx a lot!

Dr. Girlfriend
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Not being religious myself I have always been intrigued by religion. Fascinating research!

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Have you ever read "The Source" by Michener? It is called "historical fiction" - IMO, one of the greatest books ever written.

I have studied many religions (not through books, but by attending services and interacting with people.)  I feel like a fly on the wall, just observing and soaking in the environment, words, and emotions.

There is so much to know about religion and faith.

What specific religion or belief system most intrigues you?


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You stated in your post that 'celibate helpers' might facilitate increased offspring - but what are the other mechanisms that may increase offspring?

Some religious groups explicitly endorse big families, but is there some element whereby a strong group-identity increases birth rates? Are there examples of similiar birth rates outside of religious groups (all expected factors controlled for), is it possible that secular groups equally strong group-identities may reproduce at comparable rates?

Michael Blume
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No, I haven't read Mitchener yet, but will gladly take a look at it.

I am interested in the natural sciences on the one side and the phenomena of religious experiences and behaviors as such. Evolutionay studies are perfect to combine these interests. :-) Therefore, I am fascinated by mainstream religious traditions as well as by interesting case studies (e.g. Shakers, Amish, Raelians).

Michael Blume
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It seems that there are three main factors able to increase the fertility of the religious:

1. Adding value to respective choices. (For example by believing in commandments such as: Marriage is ordained by God, Sex is allowed only within a marriage, Children are a Gift of the Lord etc.)

2. Connecting people on a social level. (People in religious communities are on average more trustful to each other, including earlier and more lasting marriages.)

3. Offering institutions such as kindergartens, schools, hospitals etc. reinforcing the religious teachings as well as supporting the families.

Although non-religious institutions may partially substitute these effects, we haven't found a single case in history or present of a non-religious population remaining above replacement level for "just" a century. I wouldn't rule it out, but we didn't find a case.

For a more thorough debate on the matter, you might want to read "Von Hayek and the Amish Fertility. How religious communities manage to be fruitful and multiply. A Case study", which is Open-access-available at my homepage.

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