Atheists a dying breed as nature 'favours faithful' - Sunday Times Jan 02 2011 - Jonathan Leake - Full Draft Version
For atheists it is the ultimate irony. Evolution, the process they believe is solely responsible for creating humanity, actually weeds out non-believers while favouring the religious, new research has shown.
It suggests that, over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, people with strong religious beliefs tend to have more children, whereas atheists have fewer children and the societies they belong to inevitably disappear.
"It is a great irony but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favour those with religious beliefs," said Michael Blume, a researcher at the University of Jena in Germany who carried out the study. "Most societies or communities that have espoused atheistic beliefs have not survived more than a century."
The idea that being religious is an evolutionary advantage is in direct contradiction to theories developed and promoted by atheists like Richard Dawkins who have suggested that religions are like viruses of the mind which infect people and impose great costs in terms of money, time and health risks.
Blume's work suggests the exact opposite - that evolution favours religious believers so strongly that, over time, a tendency to be religious has become embedded in our genes.
The research suggests that the key fact is simply that the more religious people are, the more children they tend to have. This is because most religions place a high value on child-bearing, suggesting it is a holy duty.
Without religion, by contrast, atheists often see far less point in having children and so have smaller families or none at all.
There are, however, other factors too, such as having strong shared religious beliefs allows people to fit into a community more easily, accepting shared tasks and rules of behaviour. This ability to work together further raises the survival chances of children.
In his research into the "Reproductive Advantages of Religion", presented at a recent conference in Bristol, Blume found that all over the world and in many different ages, religious people have had far more children than nonreligious people.
What's more, fundamentalists of all religions have the most children of all. It means atheistic or secular groups tend to die out while fundamentalists of all faiths thrive - a process which means evolution will tend to favour people with a genetic predisposition to hold strong religious beliefs.
Blume took data from 82 countries measuring frequency of worship against the number of children. He found that those who worship more than once a week average 2.5 children while those who never worship only 1.7 - again below replacement rate.
There was also considerable variation in the religious groups. Looking at the USA, China, Sweden, France and other European countries he found that the number of children per woman in religious groups ranged from close to zero (for the Shakers) to between six and seven for the Hutterites, Amish and Haredim. Those without a religion, however, consistently averaged less than two per woman below replacement rate, whereas those with the strongest and most fundamental religious beliefs had the most children.
A census is Switzerland in 2000 found that the nonaffiliated had the lowest number of births at 1.1 per woman compared with Hindus (2.79 births per woman), Muslims (2.44), and Jews (2.06).
What's more, those religions that placed little value on having children, such as the Shakers, have tended to die out whereas those those that place a high value on children have thrived. Perhaps the best example of this is the Amish in America, who have grown from just a few thousand a century ago to more than 300,000 now, even though few people join from outside.
Blume said: "What I found was the complete lack of a single case of a secular population, community or movement that would just manage to retain replacement level. Recent examples of such demographic breakdowns include the Lebensborn movement in Germany during the Second World War, where German woman were encouraged by the increasingly desperate Nazi movement to have more children, and Communist Romania, where the state tried to repress religion while exhorting women to have babies. The results of such policies have always been disastrous."
Other research supports Blume's ideas. In his book "Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?", Eric Kaufmann, a researcher at Birkbeck College, London asks whether secularists should be concerned at a future world dominated by religion. In a study of Europeans of Jewish descent he found that those who had become atheists averaged around 1.5 children per woman, while those of moderate religiosity had three children. However the most religious groups such as the Haredim in Israel had averaged 6-8 children per woman over many generations.
Blume sees dangers in such trends, too. He said: "If seculars are having too few children to maintain their numbers and if religious moderates lose many of their children to secularism - then the surviving and expanding populations will be those of religious fundamentalisms. They will tend to have many children while blocking any serious discourse with non-theists or other believers concerning education, science, worldviews and, finally, human rights. We are seeing discomforting predecessors of this scenario in some parts of Israel and the USA."
Blume's work follows a series of controversies surrounding the rise of so-called New Atheism. The term is linked to a series of books by authors including Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Chrisopher Hitchens who are hard-line critics of religion. They suggest that it is time to take a far tougher approach to religion which should be countered and criticized at every opportunity.
Professor Jesse Bering, director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, who has just published "The God Instinct", a book on the origins of religion, said such an approach missed the basic point, that in practical terms evolution was reinforcing religion with every new generation.
He said: "Secular, nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith. Since religiosity is to some degree a heritable trait, offspring born to religious parents are not only dyed in the wool of their faith through their culture, but may also be genetically more susceptible to indoctrination than children born to nonreligious parents."
He added: "As a childless gay atheist I suspect my own genes have a very mortal future ahead. But for any godless hetero-couples reading this, toss your contraceptives and get busy in the bedroom. Either that or, perish the thought, God isn't going anywhere anytime soon."
Draft sent by Jonathan Leake. Thank you very much!
Bering, Jesse: God's little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide. Scientific American, Dec 22, 2010
Blackmore, Susan: Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind. The 'Explaining religion' conference has made me see that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day. Guardian, Sep 16, 2010
Blume, Michael: "The Reproductive Advantage of Religiosity - Bristol 2010", Lecture at the "Explaining Religion" Conference, Bristol University 2010 (PowerPoint-Sheets)
Blume, Michael: "Von Hayek and the Amish Fertility. How religious communities manage to be fruitful and multiply. A Case study", in: Frey, Ulrich (Hrsg.), The Nature of God - Evolution and Religion", Tectum Verlag Marburg 2010
Blume, Michael: "The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation", in: Voland, E.; Schiefenhövel, W.: "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior", Springer Frontiers Collection 2009
All links and pictures have been added by the blogowner. The same is true of this edutainment-clip from the biologists of Tübingen University, emphasizing the role of differential reproduction in evolution. Enjoy!