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