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What does God care about?

What does God care about?

In a long-form essay on Aeon, anthropologist Benjamin Grant Purzycki examines the sociological and evolutionary reasons why people assume that their God or gods are fixated on issues of morality.

Purzycki views this from an atheistic viewpoint, and refers to the 2004 study Sacred and Secular (Norris & Inglehart) to support the view that a belief in the divine helps to improve social and economic justice and equality.

He makes a compelling argument for the usefulness of interpreting the beliefs of a god, and the organizational benefits, in an approach that focuses largely on systems and group mobilization. Much of his theory is derived from studies that suggest that people think God cares more about issues of morality than anything else, judged by their speed in replying yes to questions about what God knows about, but it seems possible that questions like “Does God know that David has black gloves?” might result in slower response times for a variety of reasons.

From the essay:

Viewing gods as kinds of organisational strategies helps to explain the relatively benign aspects of the traditions I’ve focused on in this essay, but it also helps us explain the ludicrous racist, sexist, homophobic and war-mongering appeals that get shrouded in religious rhetoric: find a vulnerable or outsider group, demonise them by declaring that the gods hate them, cite authoritative sources, appeal to vague and mysterious concepts (immortality, freedom, martyrdom, jihad) and the bonds between your constituents will strengthen.

He references Sacred and Secular (Norris & Inglehart, 2004) in making the claim that faith and religious adherence break down in just and economically equal societies. We recently wrote about low church attendance by young people from low-income families, which suggests that the relationship may not be a causal one.

Do you find his views compelling? Can you think of different questions you’d ask study participants? Do you have a conflict between an evolutionary view of belief and your own faith?


Posted by David Streever


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Anand Gnanadesikan

Interesting essay, but one that ignores the personal side of religion, treating it only in terms of group selection (something with a somewhat dubious heritage in evolutionary anthropology from what I understand). What this picture ignores is that even in the social-democracy paradise that Purzycki imagines will do away with the need for religion, people still treat other people badly. Alcoholism, divorce, sexual abuse, loss of jobs and health still occur. And when they do people want hope.

It would be interesting to use Purzycki’s methods to examine why moralistic religions associated with omniscient Gods of law have shown a tendency to displace animistic religions associated by capricious less powerful Gods of place. It strikes me that one attraction is the ability to relax about the disaster that is always about to strike. The illusion of control may not prevent disaster, but may lead to better responses than blind panic.

Roselyn Drake

Not sure it is morality that is being talked about. The 10 commandments are often taken as statements about morality but they are really about “social cohesion” . They mention lying and stealing but only in the context of one’s fellows. The relevant relationships are with God and with neighbours not individual consciences.

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