Research on Authoritarianism and Religion

Originally published elsewhere on 01/17/2011

I happened across an article today entitled Predisposition for Religion Can Spread Quickly by LiveScience writer, Wynne Parry. Parry quotes economist, Robert Rowthorn, as saying:

All people who work in this area know there is a genetic basis to being religious, in the sense there is a genetic basis to all human behavior…

I found myself wondering why Prof. Rowthorn isn’t studying the genetic underpinnings of economic behavior since this is his area of expertise.

Rowthorn’s research article is available online as a pdf: Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. Professor Rowthorn sets the stage for his paper by asserting:

It is widely agreed that religion has biological foundations—that belief in the supernatural, obedience to authority or susceptibility to ceremony and ritual depend on genetically based features of the human brain.

The empirical basis for his assertion is research which supposedly has demonstrated a genetic basis for the traditional moral triad of authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness.

You may not be aware of this, but researchers in the social sciences have been trying to paint conservatives as authoritarians since the early 1950’s. According to Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism, a handful of Marxist intellectuals sought to discredit their opponents by attributing their political positions to a psychological pathology. In 1950, Theodor Adorno fired the opening salvo by stating in his book, The Authoritarian Personality that conservatives scored higher on the F-scale (“F” for Fascism) than others. This kind of analysis immediately appealed to other left-leaning individuals because instead of addressing their political opponents arguments, they could simply dismiss conservative positions as being an expression of a psychological defect. And by the way Robert Rowthorn is himself a Marxist economist according to Wikipedia.

To critique Adorno’s thesis that it is conservatives, not liberals, who are authoritarian, allow me to direct your attention toward leftist authoritarians Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. If those leftists seem too distant, let’s take a quick look at the position of some left-leaning Americans. How about that memorable editorial by NYT columnist, Thomas Friedman, where he stated that China’s one-party autocracy was better than our system of government because:

That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.

Maybe Thomas Friedman has an authoritarian personality? Or how about the environmentalists, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith? In a review of their book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy the reviewers state in order to combat global warming:

…the authors conclude that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, but this will be governance by experts and not by those who seek power.

Funny they should say that their brand of authoritarian government will be by experts instead of power-hungry politicos. According to Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, a similar thought was prevalent in Germany prior to Hitler, and one of the reasons Hayek wrote his book was that following WWII, this same thinking was spreading to England. Hayek wrote:

The influence of these scientist-politicians was of late years not often on the side of liberty: …the impatience with the ways of the ordinary man so characteristic of the expert, and the contempt for anything which was not consciously organized by superior minds according to a scientific blueprint were phenomena familiar in German public life for generations before they become of significance in England… It is well known that particularly the scientists and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be the leaders on the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new [Nazi] tyranny.

In our own day, the scientist-politician is most likely an environmentalist, such as the authors of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. And if there are environmentalists out there who wonder why they are referred to as eco-fascists, it’s because of their willingness to embrace totalitarian methods to realize their vision for the world.

Well this gives you some idea of where Prof. Rowthorn is coming from. However the focus of Rowthorn’s paper is religion. Since he is a Marxist himself, you can probably guess his personal stance on religion, the “opium of the people.” However he is putting on his scientist hat, so let’s look at how he does his scientific analysis.

In an interview with LiveScience, Rowthorn explained

Either we all have the same genetic foundation that predisposes us to religion, or, alternatively, some people have a genetic makeup that makes them more receptive to religion than others.

Despite admitting that it is possible that we may have a uniform biological predisposition to be religious, the entire paper focuses on the second assumption that some people are more religious than others because of genetic variation, not because of differences in life experiences. The paper does not attempt to justify this stance.

Rowthorn also states in his research paper:

In all of the models we consider, religious predisposition (‘religiosity’ for short) is determined by a single gene. This is unlikely to be true in practice, but without this simplification the analysis would be intractable.

This reminded me of the old joke where a guy is searching for his keys under a street lamp, not because that’s where he dropped them, but because the light is better there. Now that Rowthorn’s explained that no one really accepts the premise on which he’s built his mathematical model, he goes ahead and does the math anyway because it is easier than doing the math for a credible premise.

In a nutshell he is speculating that religious people will “inherit the earth” so to speak, since he postulates that their religious sentiments are genetically determined and notes that religious people choose to have more children than non-religious people. As is true for  many genetically-determined traits, the genes which a person has may or may not be expressed. Consequently Rowthorn believes that there will be some portion of those who carry the religious gene who will adopt a secular lifestyle. Since he buys into the theory that religious people are susceptible to authoritarian leadership styles and are also more conservative, he briefly speculates that the promulgation of this religious gene, even among secular carriers, will result in more and more conservative people with a susceptibility to authoritarian leaders. However at one point in the LiveScience article, Rowthorn states, “This is a purely speculative exercise” which made me wonder what kind of journal had published it. With a little bit of effort I discovered that it was published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (“B” for biological science). Their website says they publish articles that meet the following criteria.

Proceedings B welcomes articles of high quality in all aspects of biology. Currently, it is particularly strong in ecology in the widest sense, and behavioural and evolutionary biology… The criteria for selection are: work of an outstanding importance to biologists, scientific excellence, originality and potential interest to a wide spectrum of biologists…All articles are sent to an Editorial Board member for an initial assessment of their suitability, and may be returned to authors without in-depth peer review if this assessment makes it seem unlikely that the paper will be accepted.

So a Marxist economist has managed to publish an article on religion from the perspective of evolutionary biology in a peer-reviewed journal even though the article is based on two entirely unestablished premises (that religiosity is the expression of a single religious gene and that this gene is distributed in an uneven way throughout the population). What a sad state of affairs that anyone today thinks this is science.

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