Crazy Commitment: Irrationality and the Evolution of Religion

Published 24 May 2017

In this analytic paper I will review Why People Believe (What Other People See As) Crazy Ideas written by W. Irons. The purpose of this review is to identify and describe the author’s principle claim that irrational beliefs held in religious communes exist because it is a crucial component of religion functioning as a commitment device and a hard-to-fake signal of commitment; critically consider how the author links evidence to this theoretical explanation of the occurrence of religion, pointing to strengths and weakness in the position; and finally, assess the importance of the author’s claim in understanding the evolutionary function of religion.

Irons argues in his paper that religion simultaneously functions as a commitment device and a hard-to-fake signal of commitment, both of which are components of the commitment theory of religion, a concept which will be explained later in this essay. These two components are essential in fostering social cohesion, thus ensuring survival in an inter-group competition present in human’s recent evolution. Irons makes this argument to provide a theoretical explanation to one “conspicuous feature of religion” which are irrational beliefs and how this problematic feature becomes valuable in creating commitment within a group.

One primary evidence to Iron’s argument is the commitment theory of religion. According to Irons, this theory rests on the assumption that commitment has an advantage in social interaction as it enhances cooperation and social bond. Religion, he adds, functions in society as a device of soliciting commitment from its members and also as a “hard-to-fake signal of commitment” because of its costly prerequisites—rituals, taboos, sacrifices, codes of conduct, sacred narratives and spiritual experiences—and its easy monitoring although Irons does not expound on this concept in his essay. Irons points out that to be able to effectively function as a commitment device and signal, religion must be irrational because irrationality is not affected by cost-benefit relationship. Rationality weakens cooperation, Irons implies, because in both religious and secular communes, there is high cost and low benefit to the individual and rationality would favor a relationship which is contrary to that one. Iron parallels religious commitment to marital commitment in that in the latter an irrational individual (or, as Iron puts it, love-struck) who invests on his/her partner even with the threat of desertion proves to be a more faithful partner than a rational partner.

This evidence is meant to support Irons claim regarding irrational beliefs in religion. However, he emphasizes that religion is not just beliefs. Irons focuses on it because belief is the crucial element which separates longer-enduring religious communes from secular communes. Irons cites an empirical work which shows that secular communes eventually fail to survive despite increasing their cost. This proves that there is something else in religion which makes it survive. That something is belief—which is basically belief in an all seeing, all-controlling being which punishes members for their disloyalty to the group. As mentioned, group survival is important because in human’s recent evolution, inter-group competition is a primary feature.

The strength of Iron’s argument lies on the assumption that the perceived benefit of an individual member of a religion is psychological true. Iron’s argument for the presence of irrational belief mainly points to the need for commitment which is crucial in an inter-group competition, a key feature of recent human evolution. This argument, of course, comes from a non-theist perspective; hence, the beliefs are labeled irrational. According to Irons, irrational beliefs are not affected by cost-benefit relationship because the perceived benefit—that is, divine punishment or reward—is greater than the cost which may include sacrifices, rules to conform to, rituals to observe, etc. Because Irons assumes that the perceived benefit is merely psychologically true, he is able to argue that irrational beliefs are needed to solicit commitment which provides for the evolutionary need for cooperation.

On the other hand, the main weakness of Irons’ argument lies on the fact that religious denominations exist, which puts into question the extent of cooperation and commitment forged by irrational beliefs. Irons assert that belief overrides rituals, taboos, codes of conduct, doctrine, and other features of religion in ensuring commitment and, consequently, the survival of the group. If this holds true, what accounts for the apparent “non-commitment” and division within religious sects? If belief, for instance, to God overrides rituals, as in infant baptism in Catholicism, why, then, does Protestantism persist?

The author of essay points out that the thesis question he states in his work is important because it provides a theological explanation to one aspect of religion which many scientists involved in the study of the evolution of religion believe to be difficult to explicate. That aspect is what Irons calls “contra-empirical beliefs” or irrational beliefs. Irons further adds that the value of his thesis does not concern the validity of religion, but only the occurrence of it, specifically irrational beliefs which constitutes it, in light of human evolution.

In my view, Irons succeeds in making a sociological account of religion primarily because he sees religion as functional in the survival game. Further, he argues with the assumption that evolution is a dynamic process, evolving in itself. Survival in our recent evolution is no longer an individual pursuit but a collective one and religion presents itself as an effective tool that will ensure survival.

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