Does Trump’s Election Disprove the Existence of God?

Political psychology meets the psychology of religion

Posted Dec 10, 2016

At St. Joseph’s grammar school, my teachers were kindly, morally upstanding, and self-sacrificing Dominican nuns.  They generally encouraged us to be thoughtful and open-minded in considering issues of religion and morality.  But one of the good sisters complained to my mother that I asked too many questions of the following sort: “Sister, if God is all knowing, all powerful, all merciful, and all loving, why does He allow so much warfare, suffering, and injustice in the world?”  A typical answer  to such a question was: “God works in mysterious ways, and in the end, we must have Faith in His infinite wisdom.” 

The good nuns tried hard to inspire each of their charges to grow into a morally upstanding person.  They encouraged me to develop a set of Christian values that included an emphasis on kindness, charity, humility, forgiveness, honesty, and non-violence.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, and turn the other cheek when you encounter someone mean-spirited and violent.  We also learned the dangers of avarice: Some of the most memorable stories I recall included one about Christ throwing the money-lenders out of the temple, and saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

 Pence official congressional photo (public domain), Mussolini Poster (public domain) Saint  Nicola Greco (Wikimedia commons)
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Pence official congressional photo (public domain), Mussolini Poster (public domain) Saint Nicola Greco (Wikimedia commons)

During this last month, my inner Irish Catholic boy has been re-awakened.  One nudge has come from reading a book titled “The Pope and Mussolini: The secret history of Pius XI and the rise of fascism in Europe.” The book recounts a truly sordid tale of the church’s leaders compromising almost all of their values, and lending full support to Fascism, in a quest for power that would have made Macchiavelli turn over in his grave.  The other nudge has come from considering the moral compromises made by another Irish Catholic lad -- Michael Pence.  Although Pence reportedly stopped attending masses at the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic” church, he continues to tout his dedication to Christian values.  Indeed, he has described himself as: “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”  Given Pence’s crucifix-waving self-description, it was  shocking to many when he aligned himself with Donald Trump.  Trump, if you believe only half of what he has said about himself, is hardly a paragon of Christian values.  Kindness, charity, humility, forgiveness, honesty, and non-violence do not seem to be Trump’s central traits.  Perhaps Pence was willing to compromise all of that because Trump professes to be a late convert to the anti-abortion crusade.  But like the Pope under Mussolini, it seems like there is an awful lot of sordid compromising Pence's inner Christian must do to endorse Trump as own personal Duce.  Pence’s commitment to Christian charity also seems to have done some compromising when he voted against giving his poor working brothers a $7.25 minimum wage in Indiana.

Of course, Pence wasn’t alone in his willingness to compromise most of his Christian values in this election.  According to the Pew Institute, 58% of Protestants, 60% of White Catholics, 61% of Mormons, and fully 81% of born again Evangelical Christians voted for Trump. 

I just checked online, and found a very recent list Donald Trump’s cabinet picks so far.  If I were back in St. Joseph’s today, I would ask the nuns how an all loving, all powerful, all merciful, and all powerful God could have allowed Christians to elect a man who has chosen:

  • a CIA director who calls those who use torture: “heroes, not pawns in some liberal game played by the ACLU,”
  • a treasury secretary nicknamed “the foreclosure king,”
  • an attorney general who said he thought the members of the Ku Klux Klan were: “OK, until I found out they smoked pot,”
  • a secretary of defense known for his warlike hawkishness (nicknamed “Mad Dog” Mattis),
  • a secretary of labor who is a “staunch opponent” of the minimum wage
  • a director of the Environmental Protection Agency who actively opposes environmental protections,
  • a Secretary of Commerce who has been “dubbed a “vulture” and “king of bankruptcy” because of his knack for extracting a profit from failing businesses,”
  • a chief strategist of whom the Guardian says: “His web site was a clearinghouse for hate speech of all kinds including white nationalism, anti-semitism, immigrant-hatred and misogyny.”

I guess the nuns might reassure me that “God works in mysterious ways, and we simply need to have faith in His infinite wisdom.”

But what if you are the kind of Christian that the nuns would have approved: Someone who prays for, and maybe even works toward, a world filled with charity, kindness, tolerance, humility, forgiveness, honesty, and non-violence?  Should you stop going to church, and keep your children away from all those hypocrites and money-grubbers in the temple?  Maybe not.

Why not?  The issues surrounding Mussolini, the compromising Pope Pius XI, Trump, and Pence, raise a broader question about the psychology of religion: What are the functions of religious beliefs?  

The psychological functions of religion

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not believe in God, in the sense that modern Christians, Muslims, and Jews do.  They did not pray to an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing deity.  Yet in the modern world, many people believe in what Ara Norenzayan calls “Big Gods.”  A number of psychologists, anthropologists, and biologists have been trying to puzzle out the functions of religion, and why, despite the fact that there are now approximately 10,000 religions in the world, the vast majority of religious people belong to a small handful of sects.  For an intelligent discussion of the various issues involved, I refer you to Norenzayan’s book: “Big Gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict.”  Another very interesting perspective on the evolution of religious beliefs is provided in Pascal Boyer’s article: “Religious thought and behavior as byproducts of brain function.” Boyer argues that religious beliefs are not necessarily functional in themselves, but are the byproducts of several different otherwise functional psychological mechanisms.  But Norenzayan and others believe that religious beliefs and customs are themselves biological and cultural adaptations – that helped our ancestors survive in social groups, and that helped some social groups survive more effectively than others.

Let me suggest just a few of the functions that religious beliefs might serve:

1.  The belief in a powerful God who watches our every move, and who will send us to eternal damnation if we act immorally, can be a powerful incentive to do good even when no one is watching

2. Religious communities can provide a social support network to encourage “family values” and discourage rampant promiscuity.  Jason Weeden and his colleagues have presented strong evidence that the biggest split between educated liberals and those conservative religious folks-down-home involves competing mating strategies. “Religious groups,” according to Weeden, “provide attractive benefits to high-commitment, high-fertility strategists, but are simultaneously less helpful or harmful to low-commitment, low-fertility strategists.”  If you begin having children early, promiscuity can be a threat.  If you are a mother, a promiscuous woman could steal away the father of your children. If you are a father, norms of promiscuity could make it harder for you to be certain that the children you are raising are actually yours.  On the other side, highly educated types want liberal rules about sexuality (including availability of birth control and abortions, and weak norms against nonmarital sex) because: a) they do not want to wait till they are done with their long educations to begin having sex, but b) they simultaneously do not want to start having children before they are done with their time-consuming college education, grad school training, and internship. 

3. Besides keeping ourselves in line, we can use religious beliefs to keep other people in line.  We can point out their hypocrisies, and their failures to act in a kind, cooperative, humble, and nonviolent manner – all of which will make our lives easier.  Peter DeScioli and Rob Kurzban have presented some interesting arguments about this function of moralizing.  This helps us understand why it feels good to be self-righteous, and to demand that political candidates who claim to be holier-than-thou do not instead act like lying hypocrites.  Both liberals and conservatives, for example, claim to value human life as sacred.  For conservatives, they can point to their opposition to abortion.  Liberals can point to their opposition to war, capital punishment, and support for gun control.  Both sides can get to call the other hypocrites, depending on whether you’re talking about protecting the life of an unborn fetus, versus protecting the life of an innocent teenage bystander in an automatic rifle attack, or his older brother sent off to fight in a war that may end up having no profitable outcome except to investors in weapons manufacturing.

Connecting all of these ideas about religion back to the current election, Jason Weeden and Rob Kurzban have written a very interesting book exploring the connections between different people’s self-interests and their political and religious beliefs (which I reviewed here).  Meanwhile, those of you who feel that Donald Trump and his cabinet are not consistent with your religious values might hold out hope that there is indeed an all-powerful and all-merciful God who intervenes in human affairs, and pray for a miracle with the Electoral College. 

Related blogs:

Why are THEIR political views so blatantly self-interested: Revealing the hidden agenda of the political mind.

Is opposition to pot-smoking really just fear of sex?

Atheistic liberals ARE smarter, but for a funny reason.

Religious piety as a mating strategy

Trump’s cabinet picks so far: The Guardian

References

Boyer, P. (2003). Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 119-124

DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2009). Mysteries of morality. Cognition, 112, 281–299.

DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 477–496.

Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.

Kertzer, D. I. (2014). The Pope and Mussolini: The secret history of Pius XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe. New York: Random House.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, G.A., & Martinez, J. (2016, Nov. 9). How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysisFact-tank.  Pew Research Center.

Weeden, J., Cohen, A. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 327–334.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2013). What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34, 440–445.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2014). The hidden agenda of the political mind: How self-interest shapes our opinions and why we won’t admit it. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Weeden, J., Kurzban, R., & Kenrick, D.T. (2016). The elephant in the pews: Reproductive strategy and religiosity.  In Liddle, J.R., & Shackelford, T.K. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Photo credit:  Mike Pence photo is his official portrait from the 112th congress, and is in the public domain, according to Wikimedia commons.  Mussolini picture is also listed in Wikimedia as public domain, from a propaganda poster captioned: ""His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Leader of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire..."  Saint Nicola Greco from Wikimedia Commons (Pravoslávna cirkevná obec v Košiciach)