Social Cohesion is Not the Reason for the Origin of Religion

Perhaps the most popular reason given as an evolutionarily beneficial reason for religion is that it promotes social cohesion. Rituals and doctrine provide a common experience around which a tribe or society can motivate cooperation and altruism. An example of this is provided by the book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by science writer Nicholas Wade. He recites a well-worn proposition for the purpose of religion.

“Though the gods are known to live in the supernatural realm, people believe that they closely follow events in this world and can be swayed by prayer, sacrifice and appropriate rituals. Societies whose members embraced such beliefs would have been more cohesive and united in attaining difficult goals, whether in peace or warfare. Because an instinct for faith would have promoted survival, genes that favored such an instinct eventually became universal in the early human population.”

I don’t dispute that religious rituals generally promote social connectivity and cooperation, but is this the basis for the origin of religion? Frans de Waal is a primatologist and author of several books including The Bonobo and the Atheist as well as Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. In both books he says that morality and empathy, key mechanisms for moderating social behavior, originated in other species long before humans arrived on the scene. Thousands of social species have existing mechanisms for group cohesion and don’t require religion to improve it. Humans inherited these same social predilections from our animal forebears raising the question, if thousands of other species had perfectly adequate social cohesion mechanisms, why did humans need religion for the same purpose? Why does humanity have a yen for enjoining religion to solve problems for which other animals already have existing solutions? What changed?

I’ve polled many people on this topic, and mostly get answers that amount to, “it could be this, it could be that,” telling me that no one is exactly sure. The predominant, and ostensibly best answer is that human cooperation is more developed and sophisticated than other species. People required religious ritual to aid and boost the cooperative spirit of the tribe because of the more complex behaviors this coordinated interaction demanded. It sounds good, but there are problems with this proposition.

The statement that humans have more complex cooperation needs a bit of parsing. When humans first developed religion, they lived in hunter-gatherer societies that were anywhere from 20 to perhaps 150 individuals. Those older societies were far more like other primate societies in structure and complexity than modern human societies. Many people use the group hunting analogy to depict enhanced human cooperation, but Jane Goodall and others have described groups of male chimps doing exactly the same thing — pack hunting and killing prey and even ambushing chimps from neighboring troops and murdering them, albeit with far simpler tools or no tools at all. Many carnivores have essentially the same hunting organization in terms of numbers and strategy.

There’s an implicit assumption that human cooperation would not be possible without religious-like support mechanisms to enforce it, but as best as we know, religion is up to 100,000 years old. The genus Homo societies that we think characterize early human cooperation date to more than two million years. If the consistent and improving manufacture and use of stone tools coincides with sophisticated cooperation, this two million year estimate is very reasonable and is well over an order of magnitude longer than known religious behaviors. That doesn’t mean, however, there couldn’t have been a critical threshold reached regarding social interaction in relatively recent evolutionary history that triggered religious behavior, but if so, the basis for this is unclear. Conceivably, religion was useful for social cohesion in much larger human populations, but by the advent of agriculture, written language and city-states, religion had already evolved and persisted for tens of thousands of years.

In any case humans certainly do exhibit a high level of cooperation, but this is a secondary result of more basic evolutionary intellectual developments. Before ascribing the origin and purpose of religion to improving social cohesion, we must first look at the cognitive changes that hominins underwent as our brains more than tripled in size since our last shared ancestor with chimps. The human ability to intricately work together for a common cause is predicated on various “improvements” in the human brain. I put improvements in scare quotes because it suggests such evolutionary changes are beneficial upgrades in brain function, which is far too much of a value judgment for agnostic evolution. Because of our self-reflective, anthropocentric biases, it’s difficult not to see ourselves as extraordinarily intelligent, although human brain changes did lead to greater human cooperation and social interaction, no doubt.

Nevertheless, it still begs the question of what this advanced intelligence had to do with the evolution of religion. If humans were brainier than other species, why did they evolve behaviors in which the “superior” human mind created and projected irrational, non-existent entities like gods or deified long-gone ancestors? They would know that their projections and memories were not the same as the real-life here and now. Tribal peoples who originated religious behaviors were renowned for their knowledge and understanding of the natural world. They were essentially scientists in terms of their insights into the behaviors of prey and predatory animals and the plants that provided food, medicine, poison or hallucinogens.

In God Delusion, Richard Dawkins said, “Darwinian selection targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance.” Despite his renowned distaste for religion, Dawkins said behaviors that don’t provide advantage are not going to be tolerated by evolution. From a practical point of view, ancient peoples had no need to invoke gods and ancestor worship. Having a bigger brain and higher intellect didn’t seemingly align with the need to invoke ancestor spirits and indulge in repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. Religion didn’t directly assist with food acquisition, building shelter, or defending the tribe. Harkening back to the previous example about group hunting, there were abundant reasons for having a tight-knit tribe long before religion was around. Not only were the social cohesion mechanisms inherited from our non-human predecessors, but prior to religion, the selective pressures on early Homo were daunting and likely punished groups who didn’t maintain the solidarity necessary to keep predators and enemy tribes at bay.

It’s almost as if religion arose regardless of heightened human cognition. One might even get the idea that religion developed in spite of our capacious brain, maybe even as an accommodating response to it. But social cohesion cannot the basis for the origin of religion and is only a secondary function for religion in modern times. The claim that religion serves to improve social cohesion sounds good and has validity, but cannot be the original cause for the evolution of religion.