In his new book on Practicing Safe Sects, Professor F. LeRon Shults at the Department of Religion, Philosophy and History at the faculty of Humanities and Education explains why non-believers have better sects.
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The book is an academic deep dive into psychological, sociological, cross-cultural and other social science research, answering some fundamental questions on the ubiquity of religion. It also makes a positive case for atheism, naturalism, and the broad benefits of a secular society.
According to Shults, throughout most of history, religions have segregated human populations by appealing to hidden magical beings who are allegedly appeased and worshiped through ritual. These costly displays reinforce group cohesion and ultimately divide humans into in-groups and out-groups - sometimes with dire consequences for those in the out-group. We humans are an extremely social species, and so we are likely to continue needing some kind of “sects” for quite some time.
But can we learn how to practice safe sects? That is, can we learn how to live together in social networks without those overbearing and divisive gods? Can we once and for all put an end to the superstitious beliefs and segregative behaviours that are encouraged by shared ritual engagement with imagined supernatural beings? Although this sort of social intercourse may have helped some of our ancestors survive in an earlier environment, Shults argues that it has become increasingly maladaptive in our contemporary global environment.
“F. LeRon Shults is a prodigious intellect whose new book Practicing Safe Sects is a masterful romp through virtually all known research on why the human species is naturally drawn to religion and belief in supernatural agents. To sum it up, Shults explains how we are religious, why we are religious, why it is no longer good for our species to be religious, and what’s to be done about it,” says Robyn Blumner, CEO and President of CFI, Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
In many contexts, it is becoming easier and easier to make sense of the world and to act sensibly in society without referring to supernatural agents and authorities. Nevertheless, most people on the planet today still like having religious sects. Shults discusses the evolved cognitive and coalitional biases that lead to the reproduction of religious beliefs and behaviors – and the serious consequences that bearing gods can have. Theistic biases promote superstition and segregation, which makes it even more difficult for people to understand and face serious societal challenges such as extreme climate change, excessive consumer capitalism, and escalating cultural conflict.
What does any of this have to do with atheists? Well, it turns out that non-believers have better sects. That is, they are generally more altruistic and open to out-group members than religious believers. Moreover, atheists are more likely to detect their own biases and to think critically about how the world works. This helps to explain why secular societies, such as those in Scandinavia, are among the healthiest and happiest in the world.
The book extracts research gems and serves them up in logical fashion to build a case that religion is now a dangerous maladaptation — with time ticking down for us all — and that modern science, philosophy, and, surprisingly, theology, may hold the keys to breaking this age-old and tenacious hold on the minds of humans.