Religious Superstitions have Consequences

A new article by two Harvard professors of economics shows that religion can have positive evolutionary consequences: “Why being wrong can be right: Magical warfare technologies and the persistence of false beliefs.” This is an increasingly popular theme.

In this and most other examples that have appeared, false beliefs lead to positive consequences, leading many to conclude that religion is valuable and adaptive. Of course, religious assumptions can lead to quite negative outcomes as well, but no one seems to discuss these cases. In the present example, beliefs that “blessed” men were immune to bullets could have led to them being mown down by machine guns, and the tribe vanquished – the men killed, the women taken as consorts, etc.

Negative outcomes are usually ignored, as history is written by the victors – and by definition their religion had positive consequences. This is the case in Holy Wars, which have negative effects overall, but whose benefits to one side have been popularized and became the source of myths. In less dramatic cases, false assumptions can lead to the spread of AIDS by preventing the use of condoms, or prolong generations of poverty through lack of birth control, etc. The downside of religion is rarely discussed.

Monotheistic religions invariably lead to hostilities and many negative consequences. But it is hard to do a cost-benefit analysis of these religions, and I don’t think anyone has made a serious attempt to do so. One thing no one talks about is the enormous cost of human capital that goes into monotheistic religions, and the fact that they are invariably coopted by secular authorities.

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