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Your tribe is more likely to live if you are willing to die

This (which I just had trouble getting back to – it was linked to from here today, top left) is very strange:

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

Very strange because it seems to me that with about five seconds thought one can easily arrive at an evolutionary advantage associated with a belief in eternal life, and accordingly an evolutionary explanation of it.

Tribes of ancient humans often battled each other to death – literally to death, the losers being completely wiped out – and in these battles, a willingness to die might be the difference between victory and defeat, between your gene pool spreading, and your gene pool being wiped out.

Tons of stuff has been written about the prisoner’s dilemma associated with infantry battles. If you all stand together and fight, your side has its best chance of winning. Anyone breaking and running exposes all others to annihilation. Etcetera. Military cultures ancient and modern were and are suffused with ideas of honour and courage and self-sacrifice, all of which resulted and result in everyone in your army standing firm and holding the line.

In such a world, a belief in some kind of Valhalla of dead heroes is pretty much a certainty. Even now, effective military units do everything they can to ensure that their heroic dead-in-battle are treated with tremendous solemnity and never forgotten, giving them eternal life of a limited kind, and pour encourager les autres. Such notions have even greater force if eternal life is literally what everyone in the front line of battle believes in. I am amazed, absolutely amazed, that any academic could be unaware of such notions, or if aware, then unpersuaded.

It’s as if this guy Scott Atran has never seen a war memorial, and never even read The Selfish Gene, which is all about how our selfish genes cause us, in certain circumstances, to become raging altruists, sacrificing ourselves for the greater good of society.

You do not have to have to have any particular view of the truth of religion in order to see the force of this explanation. As an atheist, I am obviously on the look out for evolutionary explanations of the phenomenon of religious belief, given that I don’t think such beliefs are correct – so why do people persist in believing them or in their absence, invent them? But religious people often use such genetically-enhanced-altruism notions to argue for religion, on consequentialist grounds. In a similar spirit they also argue, perhaps rightly, that religious people are more inclined to have children, and hence to outbreed us atheists, childbirth being, for a woman, not unlike taking part in a battle, especially in earlier centuries. Religion makes your society stronger, because it make you more willing to sacrifice yourself for the collective!

Notice that if you didn’t care at all about the collective in the first place, the argument in the previous sentence would have no force for you.

It’s somewhat off topic, but this is one of the many reasons why I am, although an admirer of her in many ways, not a devotee of Ayn Rand. Her stated plan of saving the world by abolishing altruism flies in the face of the known facts of human nature. The trick is to do altruism well, not to try to abolish it. Which is easier said than done, as our current economic troubles illustrate well, and which is actually, I would argue, what most of Ayn Rand’s stories and heroic characters were really all about, despite what she and they insisted on telling us.

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75 comments to Your tribe is more likely to live if you are willing to die

  • That is a fair point, but …

    a) If you overdo the “willingness to die” bit you end up getting completely wiped out, so it’s not a one-way bet, there must be an optimum.

    b) The willingness to sacrifice oneself for other members of tribe is also observed among animals, e.g. a few dolphins break away and attack the shark, even though one or two might get gobbled up. I doubt whether dolphins are in any way religious.

  • Realizing that it requires stipulation to her definition, I’m here to tell you, Brian, that you haven’t understood it.

    There is no way to “do altruism well”. This issue is about the difference between generosity of self versus abnegation of self. The latter is suicide; the former is not.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The willingness to die for a cause might be seen as the ultimate selfish act if the cause is of supreme importance to the individual concerned. And most women have babies because, well, they want to have kids and having a family is part of being happy. Sure, they are having children to propogate a family line, but this is not done out of a blind sense of duty, not least as far as most of the women I know. I think a lot depends on whether happiness is thought of as a short-term thing or a long term one.

  • Alfred T Mahan

    It’s an intriguing thought that it’s only man’s propensity to kill man that has given rise to religion, given that most belief systems generally disapprove of the taking of life.

  • Alfred T Mahan

    It’s an intriguing thought that it’s only man’s propensity to kill man that has given rise to religion, given that most belief systems generally disapprove of the taking of life.

  • Kevin B

    Straight off the top of my head, so poorly thought out and argued.

    In an early settlement, when the men were off hunting and the mums were off gathering, (abject apologies for the sexism here), the kids were left with whatever old folk were around. When granny died the kids were bereft and the parents, (or other elders), told them that granny was up in the sky watching over them, in much the same way that we lie to kids about their dead pets. Slowly, the myth became established.

    Earlier yet. Humans are notorious pattern seekers. Moving the tribe here, when the seasons are thus, means good hunting and gathering. Except when it doesn’t, in which case a reason must be sought for why the pattern broke down. There’s a reason that the early gods were weather gods, (and volcano gods and storm gods and AGW gods).

    Then there are drugs.

    My own particular theory on the beginnings of homo sapiens involves a couple of primates, out of their skulls on fermented fruit, lying flat on their backs and making patterns in the stars, then making the ape noises for lion, scorpion etc. One of them noticed Orion and decided a belt would make a perfect accessory to carry his club, since it gave him both hands free till he needed it. He was right, became alpha male, and sired a large family in the most succesful tribe around. And they all looked up to the star gods who had given their chief the knowledge.

    Altruism for the good of the tribe became interwoven with these, and I’m sure many other, strands and, as sapiens became sapiens sapiens, some people noticed the power that being the messenger of the gods, (or ancestors), gave them.

    And the rest, quite literally, is history.

    (The last line needs to be spoken a la John Motson BTW.)

  • Rob

    Surely those willing to fight to the death probably won’t be around to pass their genes on?

    As for the other point, it is perfectly reasonable for religion to have developed because of man’s preference for killing each other – religion was a means of binding society together and stopping the killing (with mixed results, obviously)

  • Kevin B

    BTW, the altruism thing predates religion. and people, by a long way. This kind of behaviour has been observed in all sorts of animals in nature. Some species of birds will forgo breeding rights in order to help rear nieces and nephews, as will meerkats [1], molerats, even lions. Then there’s the whole social insect thing where it’s taken to even more extremes.

    And the fighting and dying for the tribe thing also predates religion and humanity. Many herd or pack animals will fight, either predators or competing packs, to protect their genetic line even when it’s not their direct offspring at stake.

    Altruism (and killing and dying for the cause), was incorporated into religion, not invented by it.

    [1] Don’t look this up on comparethemeerkat.com

  • It’s an intriguing thought that it’s only man’s propensity to kill man that has given rise to religion, given that most belief systems generally disapprove of the taking of life.

    Except that they don’t (although I’ll refrain from commenting on Christianity). What they disapprove of is murder, which is merely a special case of killing. And, they define the term quite differently from each other.

  • Tribes of ancient humans often battled each other to death – literally to death, the losers being completely wiped out

    Really? Are you sure about that?

    and in these battles, a willingness to die might be the difference between victory and defeat, between your gene pool spreading, and your gene pool being wiped out

    You seem to think that the winners are (most likely) the ones with genese that gave them the most willingness to die. What evidence do you have for that? Seems to me that this (hypothetical) scenario suggest that the ‘willingness to die’ gene was demonstrated by the losers…

  • To be fair to Ayn Rand, she did define altruism not as simply doing good but as betraying your own values. E.g. giving to a charity or spending your own money to help someone in need is doing good (and “ok”), but using your money, energies, whatever, to pay for your neighbour’s operation instead of for your family member’s operation: that was her definition of altruism. And for Rand, I think the ultimate crime was betraying your own true values.
    (I too am an admirer, not a devotee, of Rand).

  • Iain

    My instinctive response is that your argument doesn’t quite work. If we take Adam Smith’s view of the “supremacy” of “selfish” behaviour, and Milton Friedman’s successful argument that military involvement should be voluntary, you could probably argue rather strongly to your contrary.

    The Middle East is full of people willing to die. They do not rule the world.

    At least, not yet.

  • phwest

    I would make the arguement even simpler. Human beings survive and reproduce in groups. Given that there is always a certain tension between what is good for the group and what is good for the individual, religon promotes group cohesion and provides a social framework to curb free-riding and other behaviors that advantage individuals at the expense of the group. In effect, religion serves to align the interests of the individual with the group, and when successful allows both the gene and meme to propagate. Any given religion tenet need not directly contribute to the “survival” of a given individual, or even the group, as long as it reinforces the social cohesion that is critical to long-term survival.

    As individuals, human beings are pitifully weak animals, even compared to other primates. In a large enough group, they can take on just about anything. You would think an anthropologist would know better.

  • Vinegar Joe

    “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” – General George S. Patton

  • Eric

    The Middle East is full of people willing to die. They do not rule the world.

    Sure, but the people who weren’t willing to die were all driven out. They’re in Germany now running kebab shops.

  • Rosscoe

    Has religion even existed long enough to give a measurable evolutionary advantage to either side?

  • John

    This mischaracterisation of Ayn Rand has already been refuted by Andrew Medworth(Link).

  • Marc Sheffner

    Brilliant. Thanks, John.

  • Nuke Gray!

    The Aborigines have had a belief in a rainbow serpent for thousands of years, based on the age of rock paintings. And a series on Art showed that the spirit beings in caverns are probably dreams or visions being immortalised in simple paints- because dreams are believed to be another reality.
    In the middle east, people would keep the skulls of their ancestors, painted to look lifelike, in their houses, and the bodies buried nearby- early hints of a belief in an afterlife?
    So beliefs in the supernatural have been around for ages. And haven’t scientists claimed that we have a ‘god’ gene? In which case it is evolutionary?
    And that’s not even to mention the recent Time magazine article, which talked about how exercise and moderation AND going to church all add years to your life (So religion is good for you!)

  • Frederick Davies


    Has religion even existed long enough to give a measurable evolutionary advantage to either side?

    Considering that most of the human population currently has the “religion gene”, there must have been a strong selective pressure in its favour. Besides, the latest thought concerning the speed of human evolution points to it having greatly increased in recent times (last few thousands of years) due to our increased population: see this book or this article for example. Also, this possible effect of religion would only manifest itself when religious people fight non-religious ones, not in a fight between two religious societies, which would make it very rare in recent times.

    If you expand the relationship between religion and society beyond “religion giving fighters a greater willingness to die for their side” into “religion increasing social cohesion”, then the case is stronger, and the war thing is just an example of the general effect.


    The Middle East is full of people willing to die. They do not rule the world.

    Maybe, but just because they were confronted by other people with a similar willingness to die for their cause; just read any narrative on the First Crusade and all the crusaders had to go through and you will know what I mean.

  • Vercingetorix

    Your argument is self-refuting.

    You mention the prisoner’s dilemma and the very correct notion that whoever stands and fights together wins and thus escapes slaughter. However, standing and fighting is the Western way of war (ie Greco-Roman). Tribes do not as a rule stand and fight. Nor did most Asian nations. (The Scythians and the Mongols, as well as the Cherokee Indians, for instance, were known for exactly the opposite; hit and run, cavalry battles. The Gauls, Persians, Aztecs, and Norsemen celebrated individual fighting prowess, not infantry discipline.)

    If the standing impulse is not universal (it certainly isn’t), then it cannot be formative of a universal character found in all civilizations: religion.

    Moreover, belief in God is neither obvious or logical from the framework of either a soldier or a tribal warrior. Child soldiers today in Africa are not indoctrinated in religion; they are compelled, quite well actually, by traditional, psychological motivators: fear, torture, pain, and the social bonding mechanisms of belonging to the group.

    It is tough to make the point that traditional, ancient barbarism sprouted religion when the observable barbarism today in Africa, for instance, is drearily without any content more interesting than blood, food, and power. Why develop God when you have a club, and anyone that disagrees with you, you can brain or starve to death or expel?

    You simply don’t need God, the hereafter, or any of it either to kill or to die. The Marine Corps does not require religious devotion, nor do the SEALs or the SAS. There are plenty of psychological mechanisms to make men fight without the 700 Club.

    Social darwinism and especially the dreary shibboleths of the “selfish gene” crowd are frankly weary-making. You assume too much. This is not science. This is rationalization of what you already believe, as flagrant as any Jesus-rode-a-dinosaur bible-thumper.

  • Steven Groeneveld

    Good points Vercingetorix. I think many citing “The Selfish Gene” miss an important part of it. I might be missing the point to but from what I remember of my reading of it (many years ago) evolutionary stability was an important part of it. It is why, in all mammals and there is a 50 50 proportion of males and females. It is why there is a mix of hawks and doves. It is important to have some that are willing to die for their tribe but there must be some for whom discretion is the better part of valour. The mix is important. Too much bias one way or the other leads to self destruction for the tribe/race/species.

  • Vercingetorix,

    I think you have your horse and chariot the wrong way around. The Western method of war is different from tribal antics but it is different for a reason. It is different because the West has always had the logistics and whatnot to make it viable. The East hasn’t. The reason the Taliban haven’t engaged in full-on battles with NATO is the same reason Saladin’s mob didn’t. They would get utterly arseholed.

    There is a cultural issue but moreover there is a tactical issue and every bugger who ever ever lives to fight another day fights according to their abilities. The tactical cloth is cut accordingly or the other guys are building a fucking enormous mound of skulls.

    Quite what this has to do with religion I dunno. But I shall venture the idea that culture is determined by methods of warfare and not the other way around. The Greek Hoplite was a citizen soldier, the Roman Legionary a professional and the Viking berserker was a nutcase on the make. They were all in different senses individuals. Only slaves and pressed men engage in prolonged warfare which is why the Western concept of the decisive battle emerged. “It’s a filthy business so let’s get it over and done with and then have lunch”.

    This never applied to the East where the siren call of “far off sad things and battles long ago” still rings clear. Or to put it another way the German exchange at my school never resulted in violence.

    I think it’s because we innovated civilised warfare which is admittedly fucking awful to be involved in but has the saving grace of deciding the question rather than rumbling on for generations.

    This is the fundamental problem we have in the ‘stan. We beat the Taliban good and hard but they didn’t realize. It is the fundamental problem Israel has. It is a total disconnection in what war means.

    But war is what makes us. I dunno. Perhaps I’m wrong and philosophy makes war rather than war making philosophy – there is certainly a complicated interaction. But there is a reason the men and women of the West have stood. And I think it has fuck all to do with evolution. It is because sometimes we have been right and enough of us are just good people who will stand against tyranny simply because it’s the right thing to do.

    Because our culture (and not their’s) is about decision and deciding what is right. And whether that is at the point of a Gladius or a Hellfire is irrelevant.

    Ultimately it’s a philosophical difference between “war as culture” and “war as a way of deciding shit”. And if you don’t get that then you’re a barbarian.

  • Gord Richens

    From the The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin (1871): “he who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature” (p.163).

    Reasonable enough, however on p. 166 Darwin wrote:

    “a tribe including many members who…were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

  • TMA

    I think what this really shows is the weakness of evolutionary psychology in general — not that SOME explanation might not be true, but it is so easy after-the-fact to come up with explanations of why any social behavior you like would be selected for, that any specific justification just tells more about the feelings of the person presenting it than it does about some objective reality.

  • JTHC75

    I think that Brian is right, but some people seem to miss the point. Willingness to die doesn’t have to be a genetic feature, but rather a cultural one. Societies that developed warrior cultures, including attitudes regarding willingness to die for ones tribe, would out-survive those that did not incorporate such attitudes. Perhaps not in every encounter, but it would in general.

    Look at the Romans. They weren’t genetically superior to their foes, but their culture had certain features that allowed them to conquer and dominate their foes. And yes, they vanquished and exterminated peoples who didn’t have the same warrior ethos, time and time again.

  • D. L. K.

    If you want to talk sociobiology, you have to remember that any man in a tribe — even the young and unmarried men — can never be sure whose child is whose (for obvious reasons have to do with infidelity and lack of contraception). Therefore they are selected for loyalty to the tribe as a whole because any child might well be theirs. The women, on the other hand, know very well which children are theirs and which are not — and in particular young childless women know that none of the tribal children are belong to them. Hence women are more weakly selected for loyalty to the tribe, and childless women are, genetically speaking, likely to contribute to the next generation if they are enslaved and made pregnant by the tribe’s enemies. From these women’s (genetic) point of view, better to be the abused but pregnant slave of the enemy than the virgin queen of your own tribe. The implications of this point are obvious, and it is worth noting that menstruation gives the female brain an obvious biochemical signal that this month their is no reproduction taking place. The ancient Greeks are said to have regarded hysteria as a complaint due to an empty womb (hence the etymology of the word), and they may well have been making an observation that was obvious when most young women were either pregnant or lactating between the ages of puberty and menopause…

  • We are already experiencing problems here in America where the off-spring of cowards and self-centered weaklings are ruining the gene pool as so many have foregone luxuries and life to preserve this national union. It is tragic that the best and brightest usually go first into the dark night, or perhaps better said where others fear to tread.
    Unless you want to convince me that some dimwit pothead playing video-games while living in section-8 housing and cranks out kids they can’t afford is better in any noticeable way then someone who studies and works hard and conditions themselves physically and mentally for life’s challenges.
    That being said – I’ll grant that there are animals in nature that are stronger, faster, scarier, cuter, etc., but not many which can form a more perfect society – even among humans there has never been a more perfect society that was not only self-sustaining (America has artificial caps on local sufficiency) but able to sustain the weaker nations.

  • Chuck Pelto

    TO: All
    RE: Heh

    What was it someone said, millennia ago….

    Greater love hath no man than this. That a man lay down his life for a friend.


    P.S. You atheists have got SO much to ‘learn’. Or is it to ‘unlearn’?

  • Leigh

    It’s clear that evolution has adapted man to war. Just look at teenage boys (men in any ancient culture.)

    They have a genetic inability to recognize the emotional state of others and a genetic inability to properly evaluate risk. Both of these basic character traits support tribal war survival. Teenage boys don’t recognize fear in others, have little sympathy for others pain, and can’t see that they might die in battle. Only the OTHER guy is going to die.

    It’s all genetics – which is why I have so much sympathy for my teenage boys in todays “feel good” culture. They are genetically programmed to not “fit”. The male brain does mature around age 25. Risk evaluation gets more realistic and emotional evaluation of other people gets easier. It really is part of the male brain. It’s evolution and it’s real.

  • Chuck Pelto

    P.S. Why do you think that the offspring of winners of the United States Medal of Honor are automatically, afforded an education at the military/naval academy of their choice?

  • George

    A few modifications.

    First, the basic argument–that a belief in an afterlife leads to steadfastness and thus a higher frequency of victory in small group combat–seems to me pretty strong. Even young warriors who die would have an evolutionary advantage as their brothers, cousins, and sisters survived.

    Second, the sisters. My guess is that your characterization of the consequences of loss battle are incorrect. While the men would surely be put to the sword, the women would survive as war trophies and thus pass their genes onto the future through the progreny of rape and other forced pairings. In essence, men in the past died to protect their male genetic heritage, NOT the genetic heritage of their small group more generally. Thus the evolutionary logic for belief in an afterlife among women seems weaker to me.

  • Johnatahn Pearce

    TMA hits the nail on the head with his remarka a bout evolutionary psychology. It has its uses, but like all such things, can only be taken so far. In fairness to Brian I don’t think he was overplaying the significance of EP in this case.

    People like Daniel Dennett and Dawkins have sought to find evolutionary reasons why people hold the beliefs they do, but then again, it is not really all that clear to me why some religions hold more sway in certain places than others.

  • moptop

    Great post, shame about the thread.

  • Xixi

    I believe our nanny government is forcing us to be altruistic, according to their will, i.e., “You must be taxed so to pay your deadbeat neighbor’s mortgate.”

  • We have apples and oranges here, trying to fit events from evolutionary biology to recorded military history – or perhaps apples and pears, because there is some connection, but not enough for exact comparison.

    phwest’s comments about the tension between group survival and individual survival come nearest to catching the rabbit. Looking for simple linear formulae for gene survival will result in fascinating speculations that are nearly always untrue. We developed in bands of up to 150, which were often associated with other groups up to a few thousand. Gene survival in such a mix is already a mathematical mess. Through in survival under the selective pressure of nonmilitary catastrophes such as weather and disease, and simple narratives of “how religion developed” and “how altruism persists” will necessarily mislead.

    At the simplest level, we seem to have a need to both promote group advantage and our advantage within the group.

  • tim maguire

    Is there any particular reason why religion had to have its birth on the battlefield? It seems perfectly reasonable to me that some prehistoric wanderer having no clue about science or rationality might think that that odd noise or movement he saw out of the corner of his eye was someone actually there. When the noise or movement had no apparent origin, it must have been someone capable of disappearing–some higher being (they probably had no concept of “my eyes are playing tricks on me”). Thunder and lightening, earthquakes, volcanoes, rain, they had to be caused by something. Fortune favored some and not others. Why? Some diety pulling the strings is the most obvious choice. And if some diety is pulling the strings, then maybe we can find favor with that diety and get him to pull some strings for us!

    For most of history, people lived on the edge of starvation, but some foods carry great risk (eating a pig could make you sick, eating your cow could make your family starve come plowing time). The village elder says don’t eat it, but you might not listen when your children are starving. But if he says God commands you not to eat it, you’re more likely to listen and not eat it.

    It’s only a short step from “God commands you not to eat this or do that” to “God commands you to obey your king.”

  • Tribes of ancient humans often battled each other to death – literally to death, the losers being completely wiped out – and in these battles

    Hm, really? oftencompletely.

    Can you give us historical references for say 5 incidents that support your thesis?

    Because my readings show that in most cases it is the adult males who are slaughtered. The women and children are often taken in as slaves and breed stock.

    Still, if you’d like to produce evidence to the contrary I’d be willing to change my mind.

    Back to you, sir.

  • Tcobb

    The willingness to die does confer an evolutionary advantage. If you go out in the battle and die you won’t be reproducing anymore, but your siblings and children will have a greater chance than if you ran away and let them be prey, thus perpetuating your genes in the gene pool. And these traits were probably bred into us when the major foes weren’t other humans but big bad things with big claws and teeth.

  • B Dubya

    Here’s my theory..
    Early man probably had no time to consider an afterlife; he was too busy trying to keep from being killed in a thousand ways in the life he had. What he might have done, though (and probably did), is to attribute god power to natural phenomenon, and then to figure out a way to negotiate the best deal (survival) he could get from the god, which usually was not particularly fond of mankind. Not much talk about afterlife until you get to the Egyptians, who had, by then, developed the agricultural and military arts to the place where they did not have to worry about being eaten by a bear that week.

    Tribes, of necessity, evolved from family units, first to clans then to tribes. My guess is that nature taught genetic slection in a very hard series of lessons to those who did not expand their gene pools, so the growth is in part because of the need to limit interbreeding. Violence in the family/clan/tribe was not nearly as common (nor as great an impact) as inter- family/tribal conflicts over hunting ranges/agricultural areas (as Hitler called it, liebensraum). In that context, an individual willing to die fighting to defend his clan or tribe may very well have guaranteed the survival of the tribe, provided his example was the norm and provided he made sure that he killed many of the enemy before they killed him.

    Basically, the American Tribe still operates that system. All those great young men and women in uniform who defend us every day, at peril of death, validate that theory every day.

  • “As an atheist, I am obviously on the look out for evolutionary explanations of the phenomenon of religious belief, given that I don’t think such beliefs are correct”

    Many (if not most) online atheists have a much narrower viewpoint, and an axe to grind. (Christians and other religious people have similar problems, but in the online space one rarely hears much criticism of atheists, especially BY atheists.) I applaud your broadmindedness and willingness to put your beliefs to the test.

    I too, find one can take Ayn Rand just so far and no further. There’s just something wrong, or missing, in her belief system. Which is too bad, since there is much that is RIGHT with it.

    Thank you for the post. I bookmarked it, as it’s worth further consideration.

  • Chris

    Have to agree with Vercingetorix,

    I’m no expert but I have read about how both Mongols and Native Americans fought (when they were not united which is most of human history) and, for the most part, they raided. In good times, more advanced tribes raided for slaves and plunder. In bad times, or when population was too large for the resources at hand, primitive tribes raided for food, especially cattle for tribes that had mastered domestication. They certainly did not fight to the death. The logic for this is simple. Able bodied hunters were extremely valuable. Most of the time tribes were barely maintaining their populations. If you lose too many hunters in too short of a time, your tribe is going to starve regardless of whether you won the cave or captured enough food to temporarily increase your stores.

    In the American Civil War, the South incorporated a few brigades of Native American warriors in the western theater. They were notorious for NOT standing up and fighting. The Native Americans thought their southern comrades were raving lunatics for conducting frontal assaults on fixed bodies of massed men with muskets. Most of the time they simply refused to do it. Their tradition was the ambush and the raid, hit and run, not large masses of warriors charging each other.

    In much earlier times, hunter gatherers probably attacked other groups of humans in order to acquire a cave and the surrounding lands for food. However, this was probably done in a similar fashion to the same way large social mammals (like lions) compete with each other for territory. As far as I know, there is brief struggle in which a few of member of either tribe/herd/pride are killed or wounded, and the tribe/herd/pride that appears to be getting the worst of hit quickly takes off before they lose too many more. I’ve never once herd an account of large groups of mammals fighting to the death (as a tribe) over territory.

  • TheAbstractor

    Of course, religion is just trans-generation mass delusion and the product of mental deficiency. The desire to understand the origin and structure of our universe, and the mystery of our consciousness in that universe, is nothing more than a grand scheme and design for our human genes to out-sex and out-kill other human genes. (Nevermind our use of the terms “scheme” and “design” in describing evolution; you’ll just strain your brain thinking about it.) There’s absolutely nothing weird or mystical that ever happens or will happen in your life on in the world around us. Everything you were taught in your government-funded universities about what happened countless eons ago, in areas of space either too small and too far away to observe, is 100% complete and accurate. And every priest, minister, rabbi, shaman, guru or other person seemly devoted to piety and wisdom was actually just a crackpot or a liar, and countless accounts of miraculous or paranormal events–from our earliest historical records to this morning’s newspaper–are complete false and baseless. If we don’t see a way something could happen or think of some way it could happen, then it can’t or it didn’t.

  • Matt

    C.S. Lewis wrote:

    “Let us suppose that an Innovator in values regards dulce et decorum and greater love hath no man as mere irrational sentiments which are to be stripped off in order that we may get down to the “realistic” or “basic” ground of this value. Where will he find such ground?

    First of all, he might say that the real value lay in the utility of such sacrifice to the community. ‘Good’ he might say ‘means what is useful to the community’. But of course the death of the community is not useful to the community – only the death of some of its members. What is really meant is that the death of some men is useful to other men. That is very true. But on what ground are some men being asked to die for the benefit of others? Every appeal to pride, honor, shame, or love is excluded by hypothesis. To use these would be to return to sentiment and the Innovator’s task is, having cut all that away, to explain to men, in terms of pure reasoning, why they will be well advised to die that others may live”

    Lewis goes on to point out that “our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? We grasp at useless words; we call it basic or fundamental or primal or deepest instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgment passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity or frequency or distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned; if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion.”

    “The truth finally becomes apparent that neither in an operation with factual propositions nor any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values.”

  • leonard nash

    You people are so quick witted! One of the most intelligent chain letter/debates i have ever came across! kudos all around…

  • Vercingetorix

    NickM, I don’t think you can disregard philosophy at all when discussing war. The reason there were hoplites in the first place was because there was citizenry of yeomen farmers that could afford their own armor. The greek concept of “eleuthera”, freedom, created the option of shock and decisive battles.

    As to this: “It is different because the West has always had the logistics and whatnot to make it viable.” I hate to nitpick, but not hardly.

    But the original thesis – the warrior ethos of decisive battle underlies religion – rests on a verifiably false premise. Decisive battle is unique to one (and only one civilization); with exceptions (Cyrus the Great, for instance, among a few possible others), nobody else practiced it.

    The world’s major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc.) all developed in places where this ethic was completely absent (Egypt, Israel, Arabia, for instance).

    In the places where this warrior ethic of fighting to the death, holding the line, etc., the native religions are wholly extinct. No one worships Ares or Mars or Zeus or Jupiter or Woden anymore. Not even the barracks cults of the Romans (Mithras, I believe, but not looking it up) or of Sparta have survived.

    If the major assumption of the essay is true (warrior ethos has an evolutionary advantage, this advantage creates religion), this is extraordinary.

    The assumptions are, at least partially, wrong.

  • Matt

    we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


  • Chris

    There are commentors arguing for and against the idea of battle/warrior code as an explanation of religion. Some of those arguing against are doing so because they believe in God. However, you can’t just say, “Your wrong because God is real” so we come up with nicely packaged intellectual arguments for why the thesis is wrong. However, for many of us, the real proof comes from personal experiences we’ve had that relate to our belief system and which we don’t feel would be well received if we laid them out online on a comment thread.

    Well, here goes nothing!
    I’m not one to believe things because I want something to be true, or to simply trust that everything my parents told me was correct. I’m not particularly emotional. I general, I’m a skeptic and studied physics and statistics in college. I don’t take drugs and there is no history of mental illness (besides depression) in my family tree. However, I had some pretty profound experiences in my past with respect to my beliefs and had reason to suspect they might be true (or at least some of them). Anyway, I prayed sincerely to know if one aspect of what I believed was true. I was open to any answer, including no answer. I was also willing to follow whatever answer I received (which may have been the most important part). Something spoke to my mind and heart and told me (not in words which are just approximations of meaning) that what I was praying about was true. Since then I have had many similar experiences, some of them coming at times when I was not expecting them or even wanting them. I know God is real from those experiences. I also know I’ve opened myself up to all kinds of ridicule at this point. However, it won’t change what I experienced.

    Sorry for going off topic, won’t do it again.

  • Vercingetorix

    Ah, to qualify this, which I forgot to do: “It is different because the West has always had the logistics and whatnot to make it viable.”

    The West has traditionally been quite poor compared to it’s neighbors and enemies, whether Egypt, Persia, Carthage or the Ottomans. Yet only the West settled on heavy infantry; everywhere else choose royalty riding cavalry (except for the ancient Americas; they didn’t have horses). Logistics is part, but only part.

    Also, one has to ask: If Afghanistan was settled 5000 years ago, was conquered by the Persians (a civilized people) 2400 years ago and the Greeks (also civilized) 2300 years ago, why is a people only 500 years old as a polity (and that’s being generous to the colonies) so far advanced of them?

    They still live tribally even with a two millenium head-start, and serial exposure over centuries to great civilizations (Persia, Greece/Macedon, China, Russia, India, etc).

    The reason is cultural. Endemic warfare (there is nowhere on earth where war is more constant than that location) never evolved a more sophisticated warrior ethic. The Western way is as different from the rest as homo sapiens is from the apes.

  • john

    I think religion must be considered ‘social DNA’ apart from and in addition to biological DNA. Religion propagates *itself* and of course must also be concerned with the survival of its host (biological dna) as well. Still, I don’t have any contempt for religion really — it is part of humanity as we know it. I believe religion will outlast any social arrangements we can contrive by our intellect.

  • Vercingetorix

    Some of those arguing against are doing so because they believe in God.

    That’s true. I do believe in God. However, the social biology thing gets tedious rather quickly.

    We were genetically and physiologically human beings for fifty thousand years, at least 40k years before agriculture, architecture, writing, poetry, shrines, priests, and likely, even language as we would know it today.

    If human beings existed before the gods, some other mechanism besides genetics created the gods. (Except in the trivial sense, like the design of a gun is obviously limited and enabled by the human body)

  • jl

    Religion is more of a tool for control. The Spaniards taught the Aztecs our religion as a form of control. They were taught the idea of repenting by talking to the priest. The priest would then inform the Spaniards of the natives sins(crime). The native would then be punished accordingly. The same as was done in Europe, when the king controlled the church. Religion today, is a vestige of this old practice. We are still taught to believe in a higher power and guided by the ten commandments.

  • Eschol Tarrant

    The willingness to die theory missed the mark. The key to your survival (which leaves you the victor) is to make sure your opponent’s willingness to die is realized. It is your willingness to kill that insures your tribes chance to survive.

  • Hmmm.

    Evidently Mr. Atran has never read “In Flanders Fields”.

    Or even ever worn a poppy.

  • T

    Religion is all those things. It can explain the loss of a life inside a social unit, the significance of the weather, the awareness of man; it can justify why those buggers over there have to have a conversation with the tip of your sword; it’s an analogy for people and their troubles; it’s a defining trait of a people (among many in a culture.) Reasoning for what religion is is pretty moot by now, especially in respect to culture. Every last argument on this page can probably be supported by a statement of ‘religion is’, and every aspect of religion has contributed, in some way, to one or another of the stances listed here.

    Cogito Ergo Sum and Namaste both more or less amount to the same thing. (And surprisingly, war existed in both cultures.) If you can justify an argument well enough, be it by steel or by verbal conversation or a depiction on a building wall, it adheres. That religion is losing favor among some is an indication that aspects of religiosity are artifacts that will not survive in the current culture. That is all.

  • Seerak

    Her stated plan of saving the world by abolishing altruism flies in the face of the known facts of human nature.

    The article establishes that altruism is the morality of primitive tribes. Hello, that is exactly what Ayn Rand said (bottom entry). That’s why we call them primitive.

    The trick is to do altruism well, not to try to abolish it.

    First problem: this presupposes some *other* standard, by which altruism is to be evaluated. The problem for you is that to do this, you must dethrone altruism, in order to substitute that other standard as your ultimate one — just like Ayn Rand did.

    Altruism is not about helping others. It is not about benevolence, generosity, charity, co-operation, teamwork. Altruism is about the *duty* thereof; it stems from the kind of mind that cannot conceive of why the interests of others are very often in one’s own interests.

    Ayn Rand repudiated the *duty* aspect, not the benevolence aspect. That’s the poisonous part, the part that must be excised. You already know what happens to all suicidal defenders of liberty who refuse to do that — they end up giving the game away when the statists play their ace card and level the “You’ll just let people die in the streets” accusation at you.

    That is how you “do altruism well”; you delete the duty aspect. What is left is not duty-bound service to others, but the positive benevolence of helping the others you love, because you selfishly care. As she plainly says here, she never condemned charity or benevolence as “immoral”. She simply said that our selfish right to choose, i.e. freedom, is morally antecedent to charity, and that we should choose the objects of our charity by our own rational standards just like everything else — in other words, do it well.

    Until you realize that, saying that the trick is to “do altruism well” is tantamount to saying something like “doing cyanide milkshakes well”.

  • Dr. Ken

    The willingness to die for the group may be explained by invoking the concepts introduced by E.O. Wilson in his landmark book, Sociobiology. Small hunter gatherer groups were almost always composed of closely related individuals, so a willingness to die for the group in a successful battle still allows the vast majority of the individual’s genes to survive as long as the group survives the conflict.

    Religions and national military organizations both use psychological techniques to bond unrelated individuals into “Bands of Brothers” that fight as if they are related by blood.

    Followers of Male dominated religions and societies also seem to have the ability to out reproduce the more Feminist oriented western societies, where women of high intelligence and ability tend to have far fewer offspring than their counterparts in the Muslim middle east. This can currently be seen in Israel where Israeli Arabs are expected to outnumber Jews in a fairly short period of time because their women have more babies.

    When you have high reproductive or immigration rates and a willingness to die for your comrades coupled with competent military leadership, you have a combination that is hard to beat. This is the primary reason that the U.S.A. was so hard to beat militarily in the first half of the 20th century. (The second was our Darwinistic economic system).

  • theravenseldon

    Except here’s the problem (and I apologize if someone else mentioned this in the comments already) early religions weren’t about the afterlife. They usually had a vague conception of the afterlife, and usually it wasn’t all that pleasant(see the Oddessy or some Babylonian epic I can’t remember-not Gilgamesh).

    Religion for early people was about cooping with nature. They didn’t understand why things were they were, so they ascribed them to greater powers. Look for example at Cato’s “On Agriculture”. In it he ascribes a prayer and a sacrifice for everything from cutting down a grove of trees to replanting your fields etc etc.

    Someone above (I apologize for not citing you!) noted that humans looked for patterns. I think that might have been a big part of it (Roman priests in the 3rd century still used latin from the founding that most didn’t know what they were saying) they assocairted a ritual with a good harvest or what not, and stuck to it.

    The other is that religoin may be a by product of evolution rather than something created by it. Humans desire to explain the unknown. In the old days it was “why don’t my harvests come in” or “why are my children/animals/crops sick” or “why didn’t I win battle” and well it makes sense to blame the gods. They don’t know weather patterns, or germs or whatever.

    Sorry for the poorly organized post, and apologies if it’s been said.

  • joel

    I always find it amusing when some expert says this or that has no function. He means no function he understands.

    I have heard this many times in medicine, in reference to the thymus gland and the spleen, for example. Some still insist the appendix and tonsils have no function. What these experts are exhibiting is both ignorance and arrogance. Well, that takes years of education.

    So, about self sacrifice. Obviously, that exists in all creatures. Look how a female will protect her offspring. Look how a male will fight for territory. Or an ant her nest. This expert should try reading about men in war. They form bonds that are quite strong, and will certainly risk death to protect each other. Of course, as the war enters its fifth year, the ranks of the self-sacrificing have thinned out a bit, but, that is evolution, too. Most times humans are not engaged in full scale war, but their daily peaceful activities still call for a wide range of cooperative activities, without which no animal society could exist.

    So, the willingness to cooperate, and to risk death, is vital for any society. Behavior is strongly influenced by our genes. Why this is a difficult concept to grasp is unclear to me.

    It it like saying evolution couldn’t have occurred by a Darwinian process because slow, constant change couldn’t produced a quantum change like an increase or decrease in the number of chromosomes. The proper attitude is to admit that every single detail about evolution has not been discovered,and keep working to find the truth.

  • HoosierHawk

    Way too complicated. Humans evolved intelligence, which begat the desire to understand the world around them. Religions began as explanations for things that couldn’t be understood.

    As societies developed, leaders and/or governments began to use religion as a control mechanism over the people. Throughout history, government (in whatever form) and religion have been closely linked, each legitimizing the other. If you need an explanation for religious beliefs, there you go. Note that mankind was fully evolved already.

    It seems quite irrational to search for an evolutionary explaination for religious beliefs, on a par with looking for religious explainations for evolutionary beliefs. (denial, the subtle handywork of the great tempter?) It is even possible to believe in both creation and evolution.

    Darwin did not believe in spontanious life, he simply saw that organisms had an adaptive (reproductive) ability, based on observations of selective breeding programs in livestock and variations that occured in isolated populations such as those found in archipelgos like the Galapagos. In Darwin’s time it was assumed that every last single variation had been specifically created by God to fill it’s niche in nature. Darwin believed that our Creator was far more ingenius than He was given credit for, for He had created lifeforms with an ability to adapt to different environments. An in-depth reading of “Origin of a Species” indicates that Darwin would not agree with modern evolutionary theory, he did not accept that a change in an individual organism could propagate throughout an a entire population, even if survival pressure was severe.
    From an intellectual standpoint Darwin wanted to push what he called his “analogy” to the extreme, that God had created a very limited number of organisms that had given rise to the great vareity we see today, he also warned that pushing the analogy too far, as he did, was a mistake.
    Darwin was the father of “intelligent design”!

  • Matt

    The afterlife was an immediate part and parcel of human religious beliefs when they formed at the earliest stages. Gods, demons, spirits, holy places all helped Man cope with the unknown and unknowable. Men sensed certain forces at work way beyond their understanding. Think of trying to explain a thunderstorm or an earthquake to a 4 year old.

    As to the afterlife, this was perhaps the greatest concern for many, as life itself was short and brutal. The Egyptians centered their religion on the afterlife, as did the Mayans, Chinese, and Greeks. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism also do so. To think otherwise is errant. Religion is not only for the here and now, but rather to explain the infinite and timeless.

    To say that religion was an outcome from war, is, I believe, mistaken. Piety has been a part of every society from the earliest times of man. The hunter honored the kill; the farmer thanked a god for his crops; people prayed for good luck or a glimpse into the future.

    What is amazing is that humans today seem to have forgotten that all of this has a history and depth and structure that has existed for 50,000 years. The hubris of modern man is truly stunning. To think that there is nothing greater than ourselves in a universe that has such incredible logic whether from a molecular structure to the ends of the universe is beyond belief.

    These questions were argued 3,000 years ago. Philosophers with minds far greater than ours; Plato, Lao Tze, Buddha, Aquinas, all debated these same issues, and their logic still holds true. It is we who are most likely wrong, not they. The fatal conceit of Atheism is its blind faith in Darwin or Marx or another ism.

    One thing that sort of stunned me recently was in reading the prophet Isiah (55:1). It was written in @ 700B.C., probably by someone who could barely read or write, and who did not have a great understanding of the physical world we do today. He wrote:

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Pretty astute for some shepherd in the middle of nowhere 2700 years ago, and which by the way explains the interrelationship of the ant to a whale or to man. We are pretty well being told that there is something much larger and unknowable out there.

  • hitnrun

    I took an anthropology class from a professor who explained this concept, Brian. He posited, rather humbly, that the mechanist-atheist version of human history could be written this way.

    It was quite comprehensive, and almost made perfect sense, except in one regard: the primary driver of Darwinian evolution is in the difference between what organism lives to reproduce and what does not. Adding exceptions to that basic rule invariably leads one farther from the physical truth that can be observed, whether in the religious direction (numerous) or atheistic direction (the “survival of the fittest/strongest” and now, “survival of the tribe”).

    Also, as others have pointed out, extremely few religions outside the Abrahamic line (and the related Zoroastrianism) have any such idea of an afterlife. I would be challenged to think of one besides the Norse warrior tradition.

  • hitnrun

    Oh. Whoops! And ancestor worship traditions. I don’t think those count, though, because (by themselves) those visions of the afterlife would seem to be an evolutionary disincentive to death before having children.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Seerak’s comment on altruism is dead-on. This is a point that supporters of Ayn Rand’s philosophy should make every time someone incorrectly claims that she had no time for helping others, or that libertarians and other non-socialists are selfish, grasping bastards.

    The toxic aspect of altruistic ethics is the deontological part: the part that says: “I help others because God/the Volk/etc says I must”, not “Because it is about something that I value”.

    Aristotle had this figured out thousands of years ago.

  • Kevin B

    IMHO, the ‘religious gene’ is comprised of several survival mechanisms that humans have evolved. These include our timesense, our imagination, our ability – and need – to plan, and a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder.

    Pit these traits up against a random environment – random weather, random climate, random tectonics etc – and a need for a god or gods to balance the equation becomes evident. Even if we call the god Murphy.

    Add in status seeking whereby an individual need not be the strongest, fiercest or smartest in the bunch if he can add a counterbalancing force to the Murphy effect in the form of spells, incantations, lucky charms etc, and never forget the effect of mind-bending substances. Put this all together and you get the necessary ingredients for organised, hierarchical, prescriptive- and proscriptive – religion.

    Reiligions, of course, evolve. There are almost certainly more extinct religions than there are extant ones, and the ones that survive are the ‘most fitted’ to the current environment.

    One of the reasons I hope for progress on the longevity front, (or failing that an afterlife where I can watch on), is that I’d like to see which of the current contenders for best religious faith comes out on top.

    Will Islam finally beat out Christianity? Will environmentalism triumph over enlightenment? Or will some unknown newcomer explode into the world and sweep the rest before it?

  • hitnrun wrote:

    Also, as others have pointed out, extremely few religions outside the Abrahamic line (and the related Zoroastrianism) have any such idea of an afterlife. I would be challenged to think of one besides the Norse warrior tradition.

    The afterlife isn’t an Abrahamic innovation. Classical Judaism doesn’t have a tradition of an afterlife. Graeco-Roman paganism does have such a tradition, with the truly wicked being punished eternally in Tartarus, the truly good being rewarded in the Elysian Fields and the rest, the vast majority, enduring a shadowy existence in Hades.

  • Chuck Pelto

    TO: Edward King
    RE: You….

    Classical Judaism doesn’t have a tradition of an afterlife. — Edward King

    …remind me of a latter-day Sadduce.


    P.S. They were stupid, too.

  • Nuke Gray!

    Dear Mr. King-
    You are wrong!
    Judaism had a belief in an afterlife. King Saul not only tried to raise up Samuel the dead prophet, he did speak to him through the medium witch. (Can you say ‘Witch of Endor’?)
    Also, embedded in the Mosaic text, at the start of the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is recorded as having said to the current generation of Israelites,’ God spoke to you , not your fathers, that day!” Moses was referring to what had happened to the previous generation at Sinai- but that generation had all died off! That was why they had wandered forty years in the wilderness! So what does Moses mean? He can’t be meaning a vague you to include all generations because he excludes their fathers. This current generation are the same as the previous generation. therefore reincarnation is in the bible, right at the start! The Essenes and Pharisees held such beliefs.
    So they did believe in an afterlife.

  • Nuke Gray!

    And I’m sure that all cultures have had people who have survived accidents and wounds, and talked about what we now call near-death experiences! Didn’t Plato discuss a soldier who had such an experience, and use it as proof of the afterlife?
    AND, of course, there’s the forgotten reason for belief in gods- the wanderers in the sky. Astrology started as Astronomy, the study of all the weird things in the air. Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Sol, luna- the whole lot were obviously powerful beings, since they were higher up, and height is power. How could you not discuss them?

  • Nick: Judaism is not about “what would Moses/Saul/whoever say/do”. They were not gods, but mere humans, and they believed whatever nonsense humans tend to believe, and it is perfectly acceptable. Their beliefs, or even their behavior have absolutely no bearing on the beliefs/behavior of any other Jew, they are not supposed to serve as role models simply by virtue of their appearance in the Bible. I’d go even further, and say that Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not require belief at all. God doesn’t expect you to believe in him, just to behave in accordance with his testaments. Of course, it is rather difficult to do that if one doesn’t believe, but not impossible.

    To get back to the point, Mr. King is correct: an afterlife is certainly not a central motif in Judaism (not that it is flatly outruled either, AFAIK).

  • Nuke Gray!

    But classic Judaism did have traditions about an afterlife! Doesn’t David, in the psalms, talk about the raising of the dead? Weren’t Sheol and Gehenna Jewish traditional beliefs?

  • I don’t know that there were no such beliefs historically, but even if there were, we’ve certainly outgrown them long time ago. A lot has happened between David and the Second Temple.

  • Nuke Gray!

    And we need someone to define ‘classic’ Judaism for us, both a time, and as a creed!
    Still, my point about reincarnation being in the Torah is an honest one. The Hasidim use the same arguments. And reincarnation would allow Jews and Christians to reconcile their beliefs and covenants- if we do away with original sin, then Jesus is a saint whose example leads to a better life, an example to the whole world. Jesus no longer needs to reincarnate, something we can all aspire towards. The whole Jewish covenant is still valid for Jews, and the Christian Covenant is a simpler version for the rest of us. Two complimentary Covenants, not competing.

  • And we need someone to define ‘classic’ Judaism for us, both a time, and as a creed!

    No we don’t:-) What counts is what it is now, and what we want it to be in the future, not what it was a couple of thousands years ago. I know you mean well, but I am afraid that you misunderstand the basic premises. We don’t need to reconcile anything as religious groups. At the same time, as groups of individuals we have been sharing common goals and values for quite a while, and seem to destined to do so in the foreseeable future. That is what we need to focus on.

  • Peter Green

    If you can think longer than five seconds, you will realise that there is no evolutionary advantage associated with a belief in the afterlife. There is an evolutionary advantage in cooperation, but none in believing in an afterlife.
    It is true that if your gang stands together and fights another gang, you have a better chance of winning. But it’s not true that ‘Your tribe is more likely to live if you are willing to die’ or that ‘Anyone breaking and running exposes all others to annihilation.’
    The hereafter (a Valhalla) was invented as an attempt to block the natural (evolutionary) desire to flee in order to remain alive. This is in the interests of owners of property – they are the ones who most benefit from the protection afforded by the gang, and so they will promote the afterlife as a way to encourage blind obedience of the gang member.