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ETpro's avatar

What evolutionary advantage did the compulsion toward religion confer on humans?

Asked by ETpro (34217 points ) July 31st, 2013

Nota bene This is NOT an attack on Christianity. Please don’t turn this question into a flame war about one religion being better than the other, or better than no religion. The Christian Religion and indeed all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are relative latecomers among religious behavior by humanity. Cave paintings and artifacts from Middle Paleolithic times indicate that animism and ancestor worship go back at least 300,000 years.

Darwinian natural selection generally favors the parsimonious. If one horse runs from predators by pouring its muscle power into a beautiful, high-stepping canter while another goes at the fastest gallop it can manage, the horse using the most energy efficient, fastest gait survives to breed more galloping horses while the fancy cantering variety gets eaten and doesn’t pass on the cantering genes. We see this version of Occam’s razor all through natural selection. The simplest, most efficient way wins out. Only over geologic time does such parsimonious selection of individual elements end up producing the incredible complexity of an eagle’s eye, a swift’s wing, or a human’s brain.

Yet when we look at the history of religion, we find enormous expenditures of energy and resources that seem to have no earthly survival value. Burnt offerings, human sacrifice, feeding crops to the gods instead of eating them, killing neighbors because they are witches, or they worship the wrong gods. Think of the Egyptian Pyramids and the enormous expenditure of human effort it took to build one, the treasures and grain that were buried with the pharaoh, all to secure eternal life for pharaoh’s loyal subjects who believed that only by serving him and building the structure that would carry his boat buried with him into the heavens could the common people rise above death.

Consider the early Christian pogroms with the cult of Peter and the cult of Paul slaughtering the adherents to the cults of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Gnosticism, etc. etc. Consider that it took 100 man centuries of labor to build one of the majestic medieval cathedrals the Catholic Church erected all over Christendom, a building nobody ever lived in. Consider the cost in lives and treasure of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch trials. Look at the fractious relationship, even to this day, of Sunni versus Shia Muslims. How about the cost of building and maintaining all the world’s Mosques and paying a legion of Islamic clerics and Grand Muftis to devote their lives to nothing other than their religion. Religion is costly stuff, yet from Paleolithic times forward, in tens of thousands of competing sets of beliefs and required rituals, humans have faithfully subscribed to some belief system that would supposedly let them transcend death.

Again, to avoid this becoming a “My Religion’s right” referendum, bear in mind that there have been about 110 billion humans on Earth since the dawn of modern man and no matter what religion you subscribe to, most of humanity did not subscribe to it. So even if your religion does pay off handsomely, most humans were wasting time and energy that could have been applied toward survival by making the religious choices they did. Why did evolution tolerate such waste? What is the survival benefit? I ask this in hopes that this is a theological question we can discuss without acrimony.

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13 Answers

Seek's avatar

Have there really been 110 billion humans? I think I’ll need a source for that. Every biologist I’ve ever heard mention it says that more people are alive today than have ever been alive in the past. So, we’re talking 16 billions, max.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

1. I am not a biologist and remember little from my school years about evolution other than the basics.

2. It appears to me that evolutionary theory is the best explanation we have as to how life arose here on Earth.

3. I have my own spirituality that feels right to me. I do not make any claims as to its veracity based on anything other than my own personal experience and emotions.

I am struggling to remember what I read in Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I recall he asserted religion arose from auditory hallucinations common to how our brain functioned many millenia ago. Please, correct me, if I’m mistaken.

It may be that religion came about as a mechanism to reinforce social structure assuring survival of the group and thus the species. That’s my best guess at this point.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Natural selection is, more than anything else, a culling process. It removes what is detrimental to survival. As such, things that are sub-optimal may continue to perpetuate themselves so long as they are not bad enough to impede survival. What impedes survival is in part dependent on what advantages are held by one’s predators and competitors. But the point is that nature isn’t really efficient. It performs experiments with reckless abandon and buries its failures in the dirt. So long as religion does not significantly undermine human survival, then, we need not expect the selection process to eliminate it.

That said, there are some theories about what positive contributions religion might have made to human survival. The answer, in a word, is solidarity. Religion inspires cooperation among its members. It promotes social stability by positing an unimpeachable source for the group’s norms and rules. It helps groups grow beyond the limits of familial clans by giving people an alternative basis for determining their ingroup. And it provides justification for taking on the costs of warring with outgroups. The rituals found in religion also serve as an outward demonstration of group loyalty, while simultaneously reinforcing that loyalty in the minds of individuals by appealing to those primitive parts of the brain that are most receptive to and comforted by ritual (note that this applies to many human behaviors).

This isn’t the only possible theory, of course. Some believe that religion is just a byproduct of other developments that are themselves valuable for survival. Richard Dawkins takes this view further and argues that religion is a byproduct that has only managed to perpetuate itself so long by making itself unquestionable. These theories don’t claim survival value for religion itself, then, but only for whatever enabled it to come about.

glacial's avatar

I have not studied this at all, but I have had friends suggest that the conferred benefit is hope. When humanity was young, I could see how having faith in a guiding hand or in a deity who is “on your side” could lead a group of individuals to persevere through bad situations instead of giving up, or give them the courage to leave a bad situation in search of a better one. These choices could mean the difference between life and death when we were only starting out. I put this in the context of early humanity, because I don’t feel we need that for survival anymore – although it is obvious that some theists derive that same benefit from religion right now.

I don’t think there’s going to be any way to definitively answer this question. Lots of room for speculation, though.

Kropotkin's avatar

I think it’s a sort of spandrel or byproduct based on how the brain functions and its architecture.

We are not, in some metaphysical sense, perfectly rational beings. We have all sorts of cognitive foibles and irrational modes of thought— and yet our perception and cognition has been functional enough for our species to have thus far survived its long evolutionary journey.

Consider something like pareidolia—seeing faces in features where no faces exist. Not exactly a rational thing, yet more than likely the result of our need to recognise faces and to interpret various facial cues and expressions, and the dedicated brain architecture for this purpose.

I think religion (and practically any ideology, belief system or superstition you can think of) is a cultural outgrowth based on exploiting our cognitive mechanisms and tendencies, and itself conferred no evolutionary advantage.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Well, for example, Emile Durkheim (one of the three dead white ‘fathers of sociology’) believed that when people worshiped god, they worshiped society (his Elementary Forms of Religion is really worth a read, for some parts), whether it was about animism or more ‘complex’ forms involving hierarchies. So, in a sense, it allowed for community, ritual, identification with a particular group – all things that are, of course, still reasons for religions. These days, when we (sociologists) teach religion, we explain that while a god or gods aren’t necessary for a religion to be a religion, what is universal to all religions are answers about the origin of life and some sort of rules about how to live. Seems to me that people always have questions about stuff like that…so, to some, religion provides packaged answers.

ninjacolin's avatar

Religion is the “by-product” (if you can call it that) of fallacy. It’s almost like asking why evolution would allow us to have colusseums or slavery.

It’s unavoidable that the mass of information each brain has to balance should eventually come up with something fallacious albeit livable as a grand world view. Then the fact that fallacious world views are communicable.. well, there you go. Mistakes are inevitable where creativity abounds.

Mariah's avatar

No expert here but I have read a bit about evolutionary psychology, and one book addressed this question specifically!

An ancient human is standing in a field surrounded by bushes. He hears rustling in one of them. He can assume it’s the wind and carry on. Or he can assume it’s a creature with malevolent intentions and go on the alert. One assumption gives an obvious advantage.

Such situations have selected for traits that make us a little paranoid; we tend to assume intentions, plots, and ploys where there may or may not be any.

Maybe a later human notices it hasn’t been raining enough lately. He can assume he has no power over the situation and just hope for the best, or he can perform a ritual that he thinks might help. Which one do you think he’s been programmed to do at this point?

ETpro's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr The 107 billion estimate tracked population starting 50,000 BC at 2. Middle Paleolithic humans were around and in numbers significantly higher than 2 as far back as 2 to 300,000 years ago when modern humans first appeared.

@Hawaii_Jake You are correct about Jaynes’ ideas, and I am amazed that we have both read so obscure a book. I came away from it fascinated but unconvinced that Jaynes is correct. But if so, it explains a great deal.

@SavoirFaire Very interesting answer. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins gets into some depth on his pet theory of how memeplexes evolve within social units, and how the human mind, for very real survival reasons, evolved to readily accept certain memes that are supportive of religion. He goes into some length discussing the Cargo Cults that sprang up recently in the South Pacific. They do show how memes evolve rapidly, but stay confined to what a social group is likely to think. The entire book is well worth reading, but if you don’t have time for it, at least listen to the Cargo Cults video and think of memes that support them. It’s both fascinating and hilarious.

@Kropotkin If not the total explanation, that has to play a major role. BTW, I had a serious experience with pareidolia. I had worked late in the office and was driving home. I approached a railroad crossing. The signals were not flashing and the gates were up, but as I closed in on the tracks I clearly saw a speeding train heading straight toward me on a collision course it was far too late to avoid. Only it didn’t turn out to be a speeding train. Thankfully, it was a very stationary warehouse with a security light on the front face of it. In reality, it was only remotely similar in shape to a train and engine with a single headlight in front.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I hear about Durkheim’s work so often I really should just dive into the book. Thanks for a great answer.

@ninjacolin Certainly that’s there. Even if you are a dedicated theist, you have to recognize that the majority of humans who ever lived believed in a religion wildly different from yours and thus a fallacy.

@Mariah Very interesting answer. Little children see intention, purpose and design even where none exists. Shown pictures of pointy rocks, they will say that rocks are pointy because then animals that have an itch can scratch themselves on them.

mattbrowne's avatar

1) Collective identity with a shared sense of belonging to a group
2) Recurring rituals provide structure of days, weeks, months, years
3) Offer one answer to the question of the meaning of human life
4) Use of placebo effect for certain illnesses
5) Help to remain hopeful

Number 5 can also a disadvantage and slow down technological progress (like performing a rain dance instead of building irrigation canals)

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Excellent list, @mattbrowne. Thanks. I guess David Attenborough’s study of the South Pacific Cargo Cults points strongly to the disadvantages of 5, since we know where the religious beliefs came from and realize that the hope engendered by them is a false hope. We can’t say that with any certainty in regards to most religions.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – Agreed. But false despair can sometimes also cause trouble.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne I’ll grant you that. Truth is always a double-edged sword.

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