Scientists identify religious gene, intractable research problem

A giant Pacific octopus, since pictures of scientists are boring. The octopus is the scientist of the sea.

In their ongoing quest to determine why other people believe in stuff that cannot be demonstrated by logic or cutting open a mouse’s brain, scientists have identified a gene that predisposes people toward religious belief. They’ve also identified a classic problem of deductive reasoning. Citing the World Values Survey, Cambridge economist Robert Rowthorn noted that “adults who attended religious services more than once a week had 2.5 children on average; while those who went once a month had two; and those who never attended had 1.67.” From these statistics, he concluded that “the more devout people are, the more children they are likely to have.” Kombat! Kids: can you spot the flaw in Professor Rowthorn’s reasoning? Probably not, because there are only 1.67 of you for both Combat! readers.

But if you said, “he is a British person who has devoted his life to the study of economics, thus making himself even more of a pussy,” you’re half right. The other problem is that correlation does not equal causation. Sure, people who have more children are more likely to regularly attend religious services, but that might only mean that having kids makes you feel like you should go to church. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that explanation, based on our parents, who stopped thinking it was critically important to attend services every Sunday on roughly the same day we went away to college.* Yet even a brief conversation with the Mormon guy at your high school reunion suggests that religious people almost certainly have more kids. Consider the Amish.

Back in 1991, there were 123,000 Amish people in the United States. A mere generation later, in 2010, there were 249,000. The Telegraph notes that if present trends continue, there will be a startling 44 million Amish in America by 2150. Presumably, they will be made to fight for the entertainment of the Chinese, and their numbers will dwindle. Still, the connection between childrearing and religiosity seems inescapable, regardless of which causes the other. Show me a 25 year-old with three kids, and I will show you whom to follow to the Presbyterium.

For those of us who regard religion as a little creepy, or at least not the basis of government and society, this trend is disturbing. It is compounded by the knowledge that evangelicals, Mormons and Muslims tend to have more children than members of Easter-and-Christmas mainline protestant faiths. It’s probably hypocritical—if not bigoted—to distinguish between chill and not-chill sects in this way, but the fact remains that certain religions encourage a more totalizing worldview than others. When it comes to trying to ban abortion, stop dudes from making out with each other or force women to wear specific things on their heads, the aggressively political ones are also the ones having more kids.

The problem this poses for liberal democracies has been well articulated. Back in the day (6000 BC–Abraham Lincoln,) the growth of totalizing religions was tamped down by murderous intolerance. If a given religion deviated too much from mainstream beliefs or assumed too large a role in the lives of its adherents, their numbers were reduced with rocks and/or swords.* Modern liberal democracies don’t do that, which is a very good thing overall. It presents a problem, however, in dealing with philosophical systems whose beliefs are antithetical to tolerance and individualism.

Were the Thulsa Doom cult to arise today, we would not hire a barbarian to murder them. We would be upset, and we would probably write a lot of articles in Slate about how their belief system was weird and contradictory, but that would be it. Eventually, once they stopped feeding all their hot girls to snakes, we would have to contend with a bunch of kids in high school biology classes raising their hands and saying, “Actually, the Earth was created over 66 consecutive days of darkness by a boa constrictor with two heads.” Probably, those kids would not put off having children to focus on their careers.

The problem is that tolerance is an extremely useful tool for improving the lives of individuals within a single belief system, but ineffective when that system comes in conflict with another. Witness the intra-social success of such hardcore thou-shalt-not-kill groups as Quakers and Zoroastrians compared to their complete inefficacy in war. By the same token, science and resource management and family planning are excellent methods for increasing the happiness of individuals in this world, but counterproductive if you consider the object of the game to produce as many new souls as possible before you die and go to heaven.

Basically, if liberal democracy is going to win the numbers game, we’re gonna have to do it with converts. Fortunately, our operation appeals to new hires for the same reason we don’t promote as much in-house: individual happiness. Of course, we individuals will become substantially less happy if we suddenly find ourselves in an America ruled by Mormon elders. Whether we can convince people that liberal democracy is better faster than the other side can turn out babies may be the stiffest test of our system yet.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. Two factors you’ve left out:
    1) some people with kids go to church because they have free kids programs, and the parents need a fucking goddam break already! That was my excuse. My ex wanted to get churched; I wanted a break from the kids and a good nap.

    2) The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. I mean, young people, not star systems. There are huge communities of gay and other apostate mormons. Where do you think all the pretty blond boys come from in the Castro? What I mean is, there is always the possibility of reform from within any totalitarian religion. Look at the Protestant Reformation. That went off totally peacefully, and Catholics and Protestants have never messed with each other since. What? Not quite? Oh, Ok, I might have oversimplified that. Just sayin’.

Leave a Comment.