Broaden Group, Widen Empathy!
ICU / Japan

Broaden Group, Widen Empathy!

Prof. Jongduck Choi
(Sangji Univ. Wonju/Korea)

1. Scientific preconditions

This paper concerns the relationship between religion and evolutionary science. Evolutionary theory offers some important concepts such as variation, adaptation, and selection. Variation signifies that there are different observable characteristics in every offspring and that offsprings differ in their genetic traits. For example, even though a female ocean sunfish(Mola mola) spawns as many as 300 million eggs at a time, none of the eggs is identical at the DNA sequencing. Some individuals survive and produce their offsprings which are called survival and reproduction 'adaptation'. Natural selection depicts a gradual process of biological traits being adapted, inherited, and more common in a population while individuals are interacting with their environment.

We have a major theory that natural selection can be accomplished at the level of individuals or genes. However, there are other theories on units of selection such as group-level selection or multi-level selection. Multi-level selection is a theory embracing both individual selection and group selection depending on biological circumstances. Fierce debates among evolutionary biologists on the level of selection pressures have been carried out for several decades. After all, group selection theory disappeared since the eminent evolutionary biologist George C. Williams published his book in 1966. Group selection theory was formerly considered to be a major theory that explained altruistic human behaviors. However, evolutionary biologists such as Hamilton, Trivers, and Dawkins, following G. Williams, claimed to explain cooperative or helpful human behaviors sufficiently without group selection theory.

However, group selection theory has been regenerated as multi-level selection theory. The multi-level selections such as E. Sober insist that selective pressures do not only act at the level of individuals and genes but also act at the level of groups. Traditionally, individual selection theory seemed good enough to explain biological selfishness and group selection theory seemed good enough to explain biological altruism. Biological altruism could be defined as; my behavior is altruistic (i) if my behavior is not to give benefits to myself but to others or a group to which I belong to and (ii) if my behavior is helpful not at increasing my reproduction but at increasing others' reproduction. This definition of biological altruism implies that group selection is the driving factor in the evolution of altruism, even though individual-genetic selectionists explain altruism as a cooperative and compensatory behaviour-traits.

2. Is religion a product of evolutionary adaptation?

When evolutionists deal with religion, they usually focus on the question of whether religion is a biological product or a cultural by-product. In other words, is religion a product of evolutionary adaptation or a byproduct of evolution? David Sloan Wilson as a leading adaptationist of religion argues that religion is based on the theory of multi-level selection that includes group selection. (DS Wilson 2002) The adaptationists who insist on only the theory of individual selection instead of group selection argue that the evolutionary characters of religion can be explained through the concept of inclusive fitness. According to them, Human religious cognition and behaviour are based evolutionally on the maximization of inclusive fitness and consideration of the concept of God as represented by one’s circle of kin and one’s higher-level groups of social salience(Alexander 2013.).

On the other hand, there are anti-adaptationists such as cognitive scientist Paul Bloom. According to Bloom, religion is a kind of by-product and a unique kind of cultural inclinations evolved through other adaptations. Religion is, Bloom said, an evolutionary accident(Bloom 2012, 185). Atran who is called a strong anti-adaptationist on religion asserts that “religion can appear as a collection of ‘spandrels’ that culture has patched together for no obvious purpose.“ He rejects any idea that religion has any adaptive function as a complete behavioral complex(Atran 2002).

However, religion is an inevitable and necessary culture although it is from an accident or a collection of spandrels. In other words, religion is an inevitable product from the cultural aspect although religion is a by-product from the biological aspect. Dow particularly pronounced that "it is most probable that social selection is the means by which religion has evolved(Dow 2008)." This view is also true in the case of the co-evolution of cultural systems and biological systems. Many co-evolutionists propose that genes and cultures do not evolve independently on isolated tracks. (Lumsden and Wilson 1981)

I suggest that a typical human trait driven by the force of co-evolution is abstract thinking. It might be that imaginations about transcendences such as myths, religious thoughts, metaphysical thoughts such as philosophy, and conceptual idealizations such as science and mathematics evolutionally originated from abstract thinking of human beings. So we can regard abstract thinking as a propensity to establish the a priori from a posteriori.

co-evolution of cultural system and evolutionary system

evolutionary system ⬌ cultural system

facility of abstraction
(the ability of abstract thinking) mystical imagination ⇨ myth, folktale, superstition

transcendent imagination ⇨ premodern cosmology

religious belief ⇨ religion

conceptual idealization ⇨ science, mathematics

metaphysical thinking ⇨ philosophy

Religion, as a complex system of sharing compassion, initially was evolved biologically, and cultural evolution kicked in to institutionalize the religious community. We can say that religion was not only evolved biologically but also culturally because societies or kin-groups that have a religion would be more flourishing than those that do not. I use the word 'flourishing' to describe a kin-group whose descendants reproduce and survive at a high rate. We can induce from this that religion is a result of the combination of biological and cultural evolutions.

Bloom said that the cultural trait of religion shows how dependent religion is on differing societies: groups, communities, tribes, and families. Religion has three noteworthy characteristics; (i)mysticism, (ii)supernaturalism, and (iii)social groupism according to Bloom's view on religion. He argues that social groupism is the most important characteristic among the three cultural traits of religion(Bloom 2012, 182-184). Dow interpreted that the development of cultural traits resulting in social activities is a process of social selection(Dow 2008). Religious traits as factors driving social selection refer to (i)religious attendance, (ii)believer’s community, and (iii)ingroup solidarity. Furthermore, it seems to me that mysticism and supernaturality that Bloom presented as characteristics of religion are culturally set to enhance in-group unity. Among the diverse appeals to the evolutionary origin of religion, the groupism theory stands most strongly on discussions of the evolutionary interpretation of religion.

The meaning of religious community was already well defined by a social anthropologist Durkheim. Durkheim provided a prominent notion of‘ collective effervescence’ in order to explicate religious phenomena(Durkheim 1912). Collective effervescence is a pro-social activity that a member of a group takes in religious rituals. Pro-social effects of taking such activity can be maximized if constituents of the group mimic acts of empathy among one another(Chartrand and Bargh 1999). When this mutual empathy is transformed into collective effervescence, as Durkheim argued, in-group solidarity can be realized. This brings a sense of happiness and generosity to the constituents. There looms an old idea that the religious are happier and more generous than the secular. However, Brooks did not define “religious” in terms of belief and spirituality but in terms of participating in a community(Brooks 2006). Religious community assures benefits towards individual constituents, and “scattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them(PZ Myers 2007)."

I argue that the most important characteristic of religion is its provision of a sense of affiliation which is a sense of belonging and togetherness. The sense of belonging and togetherness can be shared among families, clans, communities, nations, and races. Then the important question lies upon how far the sense of affiliation can be reached past the boundary of in-groups.

Is religion an adapted product from an evolutionary standpoint? - What matters is ‘group’ that overemphasizes the sense of unity

product theory: Religion is an adaptation at the multi-level of the group and inclusive fitness, group selection / inclusive fitness; Wilson, D.S. Haidt, Alexander 2013, Hamilton

by-product theory: Religion is an evolutionary accident; Atran 2004, Bloom 2004, Evans 2000, Pinker 1997, Boyer 2001

product theory: (1) Religion is helpful for the flourishing of the in-group(Rapparport 1999) (2)for reducing deception and creating trust and cooperation within-group(Sosis 2004)

by-product theory: the power of belief in God or supernaturality originated from a sense of unity in groups

My article goes to infer that this question is paraphrased from another question; “Does a religious in-group provide an impartial morality applicable to an outgroup?

3. Soundness of Religious Groups

I will establish a condition that can demarcate religion and pseudo-religion. I will call this condition 'the broadness of a group.' A broadness of a group can be defined by a criterion: an in-group's extent of embracement towards out-groups. We can estimate a religion's soundness if a religious group can satisfy this condition of broadness. According to this condition, the weaker the extent of embracement is, the less sound the religious group is. In order to consolidate a group as one unity, authorities of a group call upon its constituents to have a sense of compassion and awe towards supernaturality. The feeling of awe entails faith in transcendental beings. The faith differentiates non-believers from believers and enhances the unity of a group solely composed of believers. Furthermore, the sense of compassion also plays an important role in enhancing unity.

However, I argue that what makes religion lies not only in sharing the sense of compassion but also in cementing groupism. I argue that a sense of compassion does not always work properly and is fair for every human. The group-specific compassion can serve a group's exclusionary hegemony towards other groups if the broadness of the group is weak. Alexander used the concept of empathy instead of the concept of compassion. Alexander argues that evolutionary expressions of empathy originated from maximizing the benefits of kin-group according to the theory of inclusive fitness. (Alexander 2013) A sense of empathy can be discarded by group constituents whenever they should not expect benefits from the sense of empathy.

I insist strongly that the expression of compassion among religious groups must be rectified and ameliorated by two social patches. I propose that the social patches should be composed of values of tolerance and impartiality. Religious groups indeed have to be embodied with the value of tolerance. The smaller the tolerance of a religious group, the closer it is to be superstitious or more violent. The larger the tolerance of a religious group, the more sound it is. The second patch for better expression of compassion among religious groups is impartiality over both in-groups and out-groups. Impartiality is driven by the force of reason while compassion is driven by our emotions. However, our sense of compassion does not always resonate with universal morality. Social diseases such as extreme patriotism, chauvinism, ethnocentrism, nepotism, and fanaticism can occur when the sense of compassion in religious activities is headed towards in-group members. I call this sort of compassion 'closed compassion.' I stress the importance of realizing the knowledge of impartiality which can overcome 'closed compassion.' Why do we need knowledge in emotional compassion?

A belief without knowledge can turn into magic or a pseudo-religion. There is a crucial difference between the absolute being and human beings worshipping the absolute being. God as an absolute Being has omniscient knowledge. However, God does not need to believe in anything because God only needs to be believed by human beings.

(i) Religious authority sprung from the process of controlling kinship and maximizing the effects of inclusive fitness(Crespi and Summers 2014). (ii) The authority of ancestors is pervasive and absolute, while the authority of a living person is incomplete and vulnerable to partiality(Calhoun 1980). (iii) The existence of absolute ancestors evolved to be the absolute Being(Alexander 2013). I induce my assertion from the above three statements as; in order to control the group members, authorities block them from accessing knowledge. If knowledge is cut off from a religious group member, then the group can suffer from their lacking of knowledge that can be used to implant impartiality in societies. Their sense of compassion without knowledge can result in partial societies. In order to secure impartiality in religion, we therefore must have knowledge of discerning the difference between the 'closed compassion' of controlled religiosity and impartial compassion.

I suggest a criterion of identifying the soundness of religion. My first argument concerns overcoming 'closed compassion.' For overcoming closed compassion, religious group members must discard group-specific customs which can fuel conflicts. Accordingly, I propose two ways; magnanimity with tolerance and universality with the impartiality of religious group. My theoretical proposal is a criterion for determining the soundness of religious groups. Furthermore, this criterion can serve to elucidate more religious ideas.

The religious seems to be, generally speaking, more generous in helping others than the secular. I quite agree. The function of compassion in religious in-groups has played an important role in religion. For instance, Putnam and Campbell wrote that "frequent churchgoers are particularly likely to give to the needy, the elderly, and the young." They used this comment in order to stress the groupism of religion rather than religious belief (Putnam and Campbell 2010, 473). I will now present several cases of religious activities in Korea to see whether the statement of Putnam and Campbell can apply to the Korean situation.

4. The cases in Korean religious societies

I paid attention to a report which was presented lately at a Christian forum in Korea. The report dealt with religious views of the so-called 'future generation' of teens and young adults under 35-year-old. The survey results in the report can be summarized as in the table;(CRI 2015) This report which was presented at Seosan Christian Forum(Jan. 2015) was a research of the interview-based poll at Church Research Institute (1,851 interviewees between the age of 13 and 33, into a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percent, at Jun.2014)

religious views of the future generation:

believers without affiliation : 24.5%
attendances without belief :42.5%
atheist : 15.3%
attendances with belief : 17.7%

We can infer from the table that the young generation in Korea mostly participates in religious activities for the purpose of getting along with friends, joining special activity groups such as a church choir, and consorting with people. According to the survey, we can see that religious concerns of the young generation in Korea do not lie in religious belief alone but in affiliation. This result could apply to older adults in Korea.

The number of protestant Christians in Korea is 8.46 million which accounts for 18% of the 47 million Korean population(Feb. 2013). Korea became notorious for its explosive growth of protestant religiosity and its rapid economic growth before the Korean financial crisis in 1997. Religious practices in Korea are very much integrated into Wish to seek money. I quote Prof. Robert Buswell who is a scholar of Korean religion at UCLA.

“The gospel-of-wealth churches, , , , preach that God will reward the godly in this life with wealth and health. Their sermons that faith will be rewarded with wealth have brought large crowds into their pews. some outside observers argue that the gospel of wealth has also inspired the rapid economic development of South Korea, as Christian Koreans have worked hard to increase their own their country’s wealth as a way of proving that they are the chosen people of God.”(Buswell 2007, 28)

This paragraph objectively points out: (i) Koreans' religious concerns mostly follow from their pursuing material benefits rather than belief in god. (ii) ‘Being chosen people’ implies the strong sense of unity among in-group and the sense of shutting doors to outgroup members. (iii) When a serious conflict of interest occurs, religious people in Korea are prone to be split into various orders. There are actually 510 divided societies just in the Korean protestant Christian community(AKS 2008).

Furthermore, Korean protestant churches have been expanding their size the church since Korean believers are inclined to big size churches, so-called superchurches, es or megachurch. Thereby megachurches have big power for making themselves even bigger. A megachurch is defined as a protestant congregation with at least 2,000 attendees(seats). South Korea also has five of the biggest 20 megachurches in the world. The biggest megachurch in the world is South Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church that draws 480,000 members per week( The surprising fact is that 80% of Korean protestant Christians belong to megachurches in Korea. ( It is even more interesting in the case of Korean Americans in the USA. A lot of Korean Americans in the USA occasionally attend churches to benefit from the Korean American network built around Korean churches. They attend churches in order to seek their houses and jobs, do business or simply chat with neighbors. Church for Korean Americans is not actually the place of God-believing but a gathering place that provides a sense of belonging.

I do not think, however, that such phenomena offend against religious practices, because believing in God is, from the Darwinian perspective, as same as striving to solve problems of individual’s destitutions via the power of the group. However, there is a need to acknowledge a certain problem. As Korean churches have been maladapted to secularization, materialism, and mammoistic economy, the power of religious in-groups increased but the tolerance for outgroup became shortened. A Korean sociologist Prof. Byong-suh Kim wrote:

“While the Korean masses in the midst of rapid social change gather around the church searching for self-identity, a sense of belonging, and meaning in life, the churches are caught up in the self-centered development of expanding the size of the congregation, collecting lots of money, and constructing fancy buildings. In consequence, the Korean church in the midst of modernization is losing its preeminent role as a salvific institution.”(Kim 2006, 327)

Korean churches, for example, have funded aggressively in their missionary work but stinted on spendings for public services such as services for the welfare of the disabled(CISJD 1982). The self-centered characteristics of Korean churches, as Prof. Byong-suh Kim pointed out, could bring destruction upon themselves. In fact, the number of believers is decreasing in Korea, and the public’s sentiments about Korean churches became cynical recently. I’d like to cite another result of a survey. According to the survey, most Korean young adults responded adversely to the image of Korean churches, even though their responses to Jesus Christ and the bible were positive. The respondents also had a negative impression of Christian people in Korea.

(What you prefer)

1st Jesus Christ 57.7%
2nd bible 19.7%
3rd church 12.6%

(What you dislike)

1st christians 58.2%
2nd clergyman 14.5%
3rd church 10.2%
4th bible 10.1%

(CRI 2015)

The decline of the church is not only a Korean but also a global problem. Amidst this trend, I stress again on examining religion from scientific perspectives. If religion overcomes the closed compassion of groups, the current decline could be inverted.

5. “Extended Empathy”

We keep a sense of compassion as we volunteer to help others, cooperate with others and care for others. So far the religious compassion was however limitedly and exclusively served for in-group. If the radius of compassion of groups gets shortened, then the group would be described as superstitious or pseudo-religious.

We have to find ways how to extend the range of compassion in order to recover the soundness of religion. As described above, one of the ways is to implant, within in-groups, tolerance, and impartiality for outgroups. I’d like to call it an “extended empathy.” Extended empathy is the open compassion built with tolerance and impartiality. The way to tolerance is possible via extensions of emotional reach to others. The way to impartiality is possible via extensions of rational reach which are knowledge. I hope that realizing extended empathy can cure social-religious diseases such as chauvinism, ethnocentrism, nepotism, fanaticism, extremism, and deviationism.

the criterion for soundness of religious group
-Broadness of group-

(1)Compassion (without border)

the emotional extension ➜ (to magnanimity)
the rational extension ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ ➜ (to universality)

Extended Empathy

I quote Saint Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye all one in Christ Jesus.” The extended empathy is nothing but a scientific paraphrasing of Saint Paul's saying.


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