Talk Sense Podcast Ep 1


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Episode 1: Religion and Identity Formation

Intro and Welcome
Hello, and welcome to the rational skeptics society début pod cast. This series, entitled “Talk Sense”, aims to deal with various issues surrounding free-thinking, from the dangers posed by religious wish-thinking, to the downright absurdity of conspiracy theories. We explore why secularism and humanitarianism are better sources of morality, and form better platforms for government and national policy making than the religious alternatives. Ever wondered why belief in a deity is intellectually untenable? Talk Sense touches on the logical fallacies that make such beliefs untenable, elaborates on the reasons why atheism is not the same as religion, and explores many of the misconceptions perpetuated about atheists and atheism in general, as well as delving into the deeper philosophies of the human condition. Please feel free to visit us at

In this episode we are going to look at religion and how it is used to form identities at both the individual and group levels. We will see how when humans use religion as a method of identity formation rather than as a source of philosophy or morality, they are less likely to notice or give credence to the internal contradictions and inaccuracies of individual bible teachings, as these mean less than the overall goal of group identity and belonging to one group or another.

Humans as Social Animals
In order to fully understand the power of identity formation, it is first necessary to understand a little about the human animal. We as animals, have evolved in such a way as to be social, that is individual humans have a greater chance of survival and propagation of our genes, if we belong to a wider community. The size of such communities which offer the best chances of survival have been calculated by anthropologists to be around 150-200 individuals. Now this is important, because humans evolved in communities of limited size, and because these communities would have been in competition for limited resources, the communities whose members felt compelled to go to greater lengths to secure more resources would have been more successful. This basic premise is the foundation for the first forms of governance, since it is likely that the communities in which alpha individuals had a large number of followers would be more successful than communities in which the alpha members had smaller numbers of followers, if for no other reason than more hands gather more food. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the optimum tribe size calculated by anthropologists and the ability to gather and feed that number of individuals versus greater and few numbers.

Given that community size has a relationship with both communal and individual success; it is not too much of a stretch to say that maintaining tribe size is fairly important. So how best to stop the tribe becoming too big or too small? One way would be through employing group identity. I should stress that there is no conscious effort to control tribe size, rather it is under the influence of a selection pressure, namely that any tribe which didn’t use group identity was more likely to grow or shrink to a size which would ultimately force members to try to join another more successful tribe, if the new tribe does use group identity, then there is an increased risk that the new comers would be treated with hostility, especially if the new tribe was already operating near to its optimum size.

When the first group identities were formed, I imagine religion would still have been nothing more than an abstract set of superstitious rituals, there is certainly no reason to assume that it was involved in the initial group identities when first they formed. It is easy to imagine though, that as time passed, these rituals became more and more of a group activity which helped to cement relationships between the individuals of any given tribe. As these rituals became more and more elaborate, so too the identity of the group and the sense of belonging to that group would have increased. This is something I call the extended family cohesion idea, because it is highly likely that members of any given tribe would be closely related to nearly every other member of that tribe, and just like families today, we tend to spend more time and therefore form stronger identity bonds, with close relatives, and as the relative becomes more distant we spend less time with them, and therefore tend to form weaker identity bonds with them. These rituals would have served as an excellent common activity that would have helped strengthen identity bonds with other tribe members who may not have made up the immediate family of any given individual, again helping to cement group identity by reinforcing the sense of belonging.

With these three components in place, an interesting thing is likely to have occurred. As the rituals became more complex and rules for their observance put in place, some of the aspects which make family units, and communities successful, namely the notion of a leader which protects and provides, seeped into the rituals. Essentially the rituals evolved into the first proto-religions. So by aping the hierarchical nature of families and on a larger scale, communities, religions dupe people into conferring unwarranted respect to the rituals, superstitions and ultimately stories which make up the religion. This mechanism actually has an evolutionary component to it as well. Since every family, with or without religion, functions best as a part of a community of like-minded individuals, any religion, cult, or set of rituals, which did not provide for familial identity to grow into community identity, would ultimately die out. This is consistent with the religions we see in the world today, there is no religion which does not do this and which is growing its member base.

These three things, family, community and ritual work together to aid the creation and maintenance of identity and can be seen at work today in things like nationalism. Nearly every time a politician has an extra marital affair the media make a huge furore even though having sex with someone other than the marital partner has absolutely no impact on the ability of that individual to do the job they have been employed to do. Children in the US have to stand each morning and recite some words in order to reinforce the sense of American identity. When a terrorist attack takes place politicians usually appeal to the population to “stand together and show we will not be defeated”, they essentially ask that we use the attack to help cement our national identity, and in doing so, solidify the other or out group, which is now the common enemy.

It can be seen in sport through the ritual haka performed by the New Zealand rugby union squad, for example, the in group/out group mentality as demonstrated by supporters of one football team or another, which incidentally can also lead to conflicts with supporters of rival teams. Even the tools used are the same, in the case of sport it is symbols in the form of uniforms and badges as well as chants and songs, in nationalism it is the colour schemes used by left or right wing political groups, national flags and national anthems. The evolutionary element is also present in sport in so far as, individuals which identify strongly with the team tend to be better team workers and hence improve the overall performance of the team. The same can be said of the military wing of a nation, were soldiers are positively encouraged to form strong identity bonds with their various regiments.

So what are the implications of religion as an identity rather than an answer to where we came from?

If we look at religion as a way to form, and reinforce identities we quickly see why today, religious people take disproportionate offence when the religion to which they subscribe, is criticized. The criticism in effect is an attack on the group to which they have an affinity, but more importantly, it is an attack on their identity. The reaction therefore is to become defensive about their identity, and to attack the “out group” which they perceive as the threat to that identity. A vivid real-life example of this very point is in evidence today when one listens to the pope in his attack on what he terms “new atheists”. Basically he is appealing to all religious people regardless of what religion they ascribe to, to recognise a common enemy. It is important to note that because of the strong evolutionary component involved in the role identity plays in humans, this reaction is not just bred into us, but also perfectly natural. In fact it should be expected in any scenario whereby an individual’s identity is threatened and be proportional to the weighting of that identity, that is to say, that if the identity threatened is of great importance to the individual, the reaction will be stronger than if the identity is of lesser importance. For example a person who is an ardent fan of a particular sports team, and holds only a “cultural” belief in a given religion would be expected to react weakly to a criticism of their religion, but strongly to a criticism of their favoured sports team. Conversely if the person is highly religious and only weakly supports the sports team then the opposite reaction would be expected.

Another interesting implication is that because the selection pressure was in favour of identity formation and not information fidelity, the individuals would not have evolved to care about that fidelity. This means that when contradictions and inconsistencies formed there was no evolutionary penalty if they were not discovered. In point of fact it could be argued that if an individual did uncover and be affected by an inconsistency in the teaching of a superstition, ritual or religion, in such a way as to abandon the practice thereof, then they would be disadvantaged by the subsequent lack of that tool for identity formation. This effectively means that religions would be immune to effects of information fidelity until the environment in which they operate changes sufficiently to allow individuals to suffer no penalty for abandoning that form of identity formation.

The other obvious side effect of religions as a form of identity is that because the individuals are using them as tools for recognizing and identifying who is a part of the “in group” and who is part of the “out group”, then when faced with an atheist they not surprisingly do the same. This means that they fundamentally misunderstand the atheist position since they confuse the identity and the claims which their superstition makes and then transpose those same two very different things unto atheism. Again it is important to realize that they would not be consciously making the assumption but rather humans have evolved in such a way that this is what they do when faced with an unfamiliar person. We try to identify what we have in common, and in some cases we falsely identify a trait as something we also possess. In this case the false assumption is generated because the person is trying to categorize whether the atheist is part of the “in group” or “out group”, when in fact the atheist’s position is simply a lack of belief in the TRUTH of the religion and has no evolutionary tie to identity formation as religion does. Actually, atheism would have had a negative correlation to evolutionary success since the lack of belief runs contrary to the very thing which made rituals and superstitions advantageous, namely that the rituals would not have helped the atheist form the inter-communal bonds needed to form a strong group identity or sense of belonging, and hence they would not have felt compelled to go the extra mile when hunting and gathering. It is possible that this may also have affected the atheist’s ability to find a mate within the group and successfully pass on the genes for free-thinking.

“Hold on”, I hear you cry, “surely atheism is used for identity formation too, after all, it is a part of the Rational Skeptics Society’s identity?!” This is absolutely correct, but let me repeat the point I made earlier, if the environment in which the selection pressure which favours rituals as identity formers changes sufficiently, then the door opens for identity formers which are devoid of ritual and superstition. This is exactly what has occurred in the very recent past, allowing for skeptical groups to form without an evolutionary penalty. In short, while atheism may be used as a tool for identity formation, it still is not a belief system.

So what have we learned? If we view religion as a way of explaining the universe we see around us, we run into the fact that all religions contain fundamental inaccuracies which render them useless for the task. However, if we look at religion as being a tool individuals use to form both personal and group identities, then the problems of inaccuracies in its teaching as far as truthfulness goes, disappear. Moreover, we can clearly see how religion operates under the remit of evolution by natural selection.

That’s it for this episode of Talk Sense, I hope you have enjoyed the show and don’t forget to visit the site at Until next time goodbye, and remember; God doesn’t exist, 911 was not a conspiracy, vaccinations are a GOOD idea, and if alternative medicine worked it wouldn’t be alternative. Deal with it!!

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