Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Death of Atheism?

Atheists are breeding themselves out of existence. Or rather, not breeding. The religious, meanwhile, have evolved to go forth and multiply - according to the media.

The first round of 'news' stories was based on a paper called The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation by Michael Blume. The story has now come back because of a paper by Robert Rowthorn: Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model

Blume says that religious people have evolved to produce more children than the non-religious, even in developed countries (he cites Switzerland as an example). He suggests that this is because belonging to a religious community provides more co-operation in child-rearing and that such communities particularly benefit women of reproductive age as religion promotes marriage and fidelity.

This got reported (for example in the Sunday Times) as 'over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, atheists had fewer children and the societies they belong to are likely to disappear'.

Evolutionary timescales are rather more than hundreds of years - unless you're a fruit fly. The reporting ignores many other key factors. For example, most atheists have religious parents, they don't just spontaneously generate. There are more openly atheist people now than there have ever been. Figures on church attendance, religious affiliation and belief in the UK, for example, showed a marked decline in younger people - who have yet to breed.

However, in many societies, it is still hard - even dangerous - to be openly atheist; social traditions that encourage and facilitate large families are likely to influence even non-believers who live (covertly) in them. The Atheist Doomsday scenario also ignores the fact that in third world countries, people have more children regardless of their religion because they are needed to work to support the family and because more children die young. The research looks only at birth rates, not long-term survival rates. While a country's religion may encourage this kind of breeding, there are many more factors than faith.

The reporting also assumes that the current geo-political and religious status quo will hold for long enough into the future for evolution to have an effect and for atheists to be wiped out. Moreover, religion may apparently encourage fidelity but human nature is sneaky just like all animal nature. Believers were delighted with March of the Penguins as it appeared to show faithful penguin couples - except they're not. Just like many other animals, penguins have evolved to be opportunistic and will sneak off for some extra-conjugal mating whenever they get the chance. If the punishment for being caught is high (like stoning, say), this may deter some but will just increase ingenuity in others who will pass on the sneaky gene to their children...

Furthermore, how many atheists were there even 2000 years ago let alone 100,000? Without knowing this, we can't even begin to look at any possible evolutionary effects. There was no non-believing control group in the Iron Age.

The Telegraph version of Robert Rowthorn's paper is 'Believers' gene will spread religion, says academic'.

Except he doesn't. Rowthorn posits various possible scenarios. One is that religion becomes more widespread because religious people breed more so the genetic propensity to believe and breed spreads. He mentions the Blume study. But in that study, religiosity is measured by attendance. This may work in most current Western cultures but in some parts of the world, non-attendance is almost impossible because of social pressures. Similarly, in Elizabethan times, it was illegal not to go to church so by that measure, everyone was religious.

In addition, Rowthorn says that 'heritability studies suggest there is currently significant variation in genetic predisposition towards religion'. So not all religous people are equally religious although he does assume that 'all religious adults... have the same fertility irrespective of their genes', which is quite a big assumption.

Another scenario is that religions where people do not marry out will continue to breed at a much faster rate than the rest of the population - he cites the Amish and Haredi Jews as examples. However, Rowthorn points out that while they could vastly increase their numbers, as groups grow, the chances of defection increase as members are more likely to come into contact with outsiders and because it is harder to control larger groups. As people from third world countries move to the West, there will be economic restraints on having very large families to factor in.

He doesn't look at the problems of inbreeding in such groups, which may reduce survival fitness as harmful mutations spread.

Finally, he posits a scenario where defectors from religions take their religious genes with them. Presumably these are the weaker variants or people wouldn't be able to lose their religion in the first place. Going with his argument, these defectors will take their genes into the general population where they will manifest themselves in secular ways, for example as a respect for authority. He doesn't consider, for example, the fact that some defectors leave because they are gay and can live openly in mainstream society. The likelihood of them breeding is considerably reduced (although not eliminated).

Two rather over-simplified papers base their findings on very narrow parameters and assumptions, ignore complicating factors and other potential influences (culture, economics for example) even though genes never work in isolation but in tandem with the environment. They are reported as heralding the death of atheism.

It's true that some developed countries are producing fewer children. Just to muddy the waters, the birth rate in Italy and Ireland, strongly Catholic countries, is also falling as people ignore the priests and control their fertility.

While some religious groups in this country might be only too happy to see the death of the 'Dawkins' gene, they might also like to consider the scare stories about how Muslims will out-breed all other groups in Europe. Not so smug now, then.


  1. WAH. Massive ignore of history on that study's behalf too.

  2. I am afraid that atheists are doomed:

    Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, By Eric Kaufmann

    "The main weapon in the fundamentalist armoury is demography...The Mormons should have been a shrinking minority in Utah. But despite considerable non-Mormon immigration, they increased their share of the population from 60 per cent in 1920 to 75 per cent in 2000. The Quiverfull Protestants, who see children as a blessing, have formulated a "two hundred year plan" for demographic domination. And they are right on course."