Re: Religion is probably a good thing

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Sat Oct 27 2001 - 05:44:44 MDT

Samantha Atkins wrote:
> "Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" wrote:
> >
> > I think that the strongest force promoting religion, in the ancestral
> > environment, was the social reprisal that tended to be visited on the
> > nonreligious. Social reprisals are visited on people who are a *little
> > less* religious - people who fall behind in the competition - not just
> > people from different religions. If you'd grown up in any time prior to
> > the seventeenth century, or anywhere except the First World, this would
> > probably be the first thought that passed through your mind. Even in a
> > purely memetic environment - with no God module - memes that 'logically'
> > require enforcement will tend to propagate. This environmental condition
> > has been maintained for at least a hundred thousand years and probably
> > more like a million. So now there are God modules. Innate advantage?
> > Seems unlikely. Social advantage only. Disadvantage in an absolute
> > sense.
> Perhaps you should read up on Far Eastern religious history
> before you claim that those who practiced religion less or in
> different ways were so strongly oppressed that the meme was
> enforced.

Repression doesn't need to be universal, or a necessary property of
religion, for a God Module to evolve. Repression just needs to happen
frequently enough to be a regularity in the environment that creates a
selection pressure.

> Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, at least in many
> of their forms, do not require fixed adherence to a single dogma
> or even to belief in God or gods and goddesses. Buddhism is
> even less restrictive as its primary original lines were not
> theistic and certainly did not enforce Buddhist memes. Another
> small problem is that some of these faiths tend toward celibacy
> of the most faithful and especially the leadership. So one
> wonders how these strong religion/spirituality memes would
> propagate so well under such conditions.

I'm very much afraid that religions calling for celibacy may have wiped
out the tendency to live up to the logical consequences of one's beliefs -
that and all the other memes, even truthful memes, that called for any
kind of personal sacrifice. Evolutionary changes that wipe out existing
functionality rather than creating new functionality can happen much

> Also, relatively socially coherent religious systems rather than
> many competing superstitions and views are a fairly recent
> phenomenon - more like the last 10,000 years than the last
> 100,000 by what evidence we have.

That's exactly right. Buddhism, and all the enlightened modern
interpretations of bloodthirsty old-time religions, are certainly not
10,000 years old, and the last ten thousand years are irrelevant in terms
of evolution - enough to drive the species to one end or another of an
existing variant distribution; not enough to create de novo complex
functional adaptation. All that matters in terms of evolution is the
90,000 years before that and the million years before that, back in the
hunter-gatherer tribes. I strongly suspect that having a different
religion back then could be fatal... or at least, that challenging any
tenet of the tribe's religion was tantamount to challenging the local
witch doctor to a duel, and you had better be ready to win if you tried.

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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