Something to Fear?

March 21, 2011

The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal summarized two academic studies that may be of interest to some in the freethought community.

One study concluded that there were discernible geographic patterns in the distribution of fear regarding various events, with southern European countries registering the highest fear levels and countries such as Finland, Austria, and The Netherlands the lowest. Significantly, the “most robust determinant of a nation’s fear factor was the proportion of citizens who believe in hell.” So the lesson is: Scare them once and they stay scared.

On the other hand, a separate study delivered some news that might concern those of us skeptical of hell and other supernatural phenomena. This other study concluded, “If there is a genetic component to religious belief, the pro-religion variant is mathematically bound to win out … if believers continue to outbreed nonbelievers.” The study factored in defection rates, that, is the rate of believers who leave their religion, and even a 50% defection rate is not sufficient to prevent the religious allele from spreading through the population after 20 generations.

OK, the breeding part is probably a given. There are many groups like the Mormons on one side versus notoriously low-breeding atheists on the other. But there are still a lot of “ifs” associated with this study. That there is a set of genes associated with religious belief remains very much uncertain. Moreover, as we all know, having a gene that predisposes one to certain behavior does not necessarily result in that behavior occurring. Genotype is not the same as phenotype. Various factors can prevent a gene from influencing conduct. Perhaps all we need to suppress the religious allele is a healthy dose of reality.