Religion: evolutionary origins, modern consequences

I have wanted to write a piece about religion for some time now, and I’m finally going to do it. It behooves me to state my personal religious view so as to be upfront about my biases, in order that my arguments might be understood. Doing so is also in the spirit of this piece because I’ll be discussing in some depth my perspective on the causal nature of ideas many humans hold dear, and I encourage others, if they choose, to strive to explain the causal roots of my ideas. It’s only fair that we all be subject to such scrutiny.

I was baptized in a Catholic church as a baby, and have participated in the sacraments and rituals of Catholicism throughout my life. I experienced first communion, Catholic education, and confirmation. I go to Church with my family on Christmas and Easter. I could very well get married in a Catholic Church. Still, if you ask me outright whether I believe in God, I’ll probably say no.

Religion simply is not a very important part of my life right now. In the past few years my understanding of the observable world around me — its diversity, beauty, organizations, and issues — has grown immensely. I see all sorts of problems that I want to be a part of solving, and devotion to a particular religious denomination seems unnecessary and unhelpful in such a pursuit. My restless nights are not spent wondering whether God exists, but rather what power I have to alleviate poverty, injustice, and pain locally and globally.

Religion has been on my mind because it plays such a huge role in human society today, and has for centuries, even millennia. I take for a given that anyone who yearns to improve the world needs first to understand it. I admittedly may take this to an extreme, as I have this desire to devise some sort of theoretical explanation for why the world exists how it does, with all its beauty and all its painful conflict. Given the importance of religion in human history, the topic is too large for me to leave the stone unturned. Only about 16% of the world population is nonreligious, a figure which includes atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. Religion plays a huge role in so much of human behavior, from our politics to our family dynamics, that it cannot be ignored in any rigorous analysis of human society.

My goal in this article is to outline my theory of where religion comes from and why it persists. This is of course only my first attempt at writing on this topic, so bear that in mind as you read. I hope you find my ideas thought provoking and somewhat challenging to your current thoughts on religion.

My theory is based in naturalistic evolutionary assumptions. In other words, I assume that there is an evolutionary explanation for why religion is so prevalent in human organization. In more other words, in developing these ideas I have assumed that in fact there is no supernatural being interacting with us, influencing us to believe in the supernatural. However, as Peter van Inwagen points out in his commentary on Paul Bloom’s argument, an evolutionary stance on the origins of religion does not necessarily contradict the existence of an influential supernatural being. He separates Bloom’s ideas from those of Freud, Marx, and Feuerbach, which all “resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation.” At the end of this article, I will examine my theory in this light.

The first step in an evolutionary analysis of anything is to understand how it could be advantageous toward the survival and reproduction of organisms. That is to say, why was that specific trait favored by natural selection? To understand the evolutionary advantages that religion presents, it is crucial to first understand the existence and persistence of intra-species cooperation.

The most deeply ingrained evolutionary instinct is to reproduce by any means necessary. To our oldest evolutionary ancestors this meant that self-interest was king — there was nothing else. In such a world, it became advantageous to be able to collect, analyze, and act on information, including the behavior of other organisms. Perhaps this information could help an organism identify a food source with less traffic from his competing brethren. Once all the organisms were receiving information, it became advantageous to be able to control the information you emit, both to compete and, for the first time, to cooperate. The organisms might signal their intention to dine on one food source, but dash to another at the last second (competition). They might also learn that if they can communicate to one another about threats, like common predators, they can all improve their opportunities for survival and reproduction (cooperation).

So these ancient ancestral organisms would have been competing at some moments and cooperating at others. In all this madness, it might be useful for them to distinguish who to trust and who not to, so as to facilitate their behavior. One natural distinction would be to trust your parent(s), as they have an innate desire to see you survive and reproduce, given that their DNA exists within you, and as we have stated, passing DNA is the most natural instinct there is. Indeed, the bond between a parent and its offspring has obvious evolutionary roots, leading to a higher frequency of cooperation (and thus a lower frequency of competition) in this relationship than in others. If you cooperate with your parents, and they also cooperate with their other offspring for the same reason, it is a natural extension that you will cooperate with your siblings, at least more often than with strangers. Anyone who grew up with siblings like I did might scoff at this point, but when it comes down to it, fraternal and sororal bonds are stronger than most, despite the fleeting rivalries and fights we may engage in. The modern understanding of family descends from these origins.

But what if we need wider cooperation, beyond the scope of familial relationships? It might be desirable to have a system of rules that everyone follows governing how and when cooperation ought to be performed, and simultaneously, how and when competition can run its course. Two institutions paramount to the present day were derived from this desire: government and religion.

Quick tangent: If you’re reading this and think I’m crazy, I understand. It’s okay. If nothing else, at least I have you thinking. I hope you’re spinning your wheels trying to figure out the evolutionary origins of all sorts of things in your life. It matters, a lot. You’ll just have to trust me on that for now, but I’ll prove it at some point.

Okay, back on track. How could religion and government be born of the same need? Aren’t those things, like, completely separate? Actually if you remember your world history classes from school, in the scope of human history, “separation of church and state” is a fairly new and radical idea. And for me at least, the more I try to understand these two things together rather than separate, the better I feel I understand each of them.

Both governments and religions influence, instruct, and compel individuals to live according to a certain code, with instructions on how and when to cooperate and compete. The government puts these codes into law, while religion references them from holy books and other sacred instructional tools. Individuals subscribing to a religion or to a government must make sacrifices, including the freedom to do things that violate the agreed upon code. Both governments and religions are dependent on the development and maintenance of certain values and beliefs across populations to ensure their persistence. And lastly, both governments and religions have the ultimate goal of coordinating behavior among their constituents in order to improve the wellbeing of all involved. I’ll summarize these similarities by saying that religion and government have the same “structure.”

Government and religion of course differ in some important ways, the most obvious being how the rules of the system are made and enforced. Governments have human leaders, while religions have deities and spirits. Governments enforce their rules with physical power, while religions deter bad behavior by threatening those who partake in it with eternal suffering or other spiritual future consequences. If government and religion have the same structure, what explains these differences in how they developed?

The fruits of strategic cooperation are curious. Having realized that collusion is beneficial in some ways and at some moments, our ancestors would have wanted to spread that information to as many other individuals as possible, simply because cooperation is more powerful when more individuals are involved. If you need proof of that, try playing Monopoly where only two of your four players take $200 when they pass ‘GO’, and the others just take as much as they want.

What would it take for one individual to convince another to subscribe to a certain set of rules? Today, it would take a reasonable explanation for why this is a beneficial activity. But back then, before the development of science and thus before our modern ability to “know” things with logic and reason, other methods had to be employed.

Let’s return to our stylized example. Two individuals realize that cooperating in some way can be beneficial to both, for example, by not stealing. But the third individual they approach with this rule would be hesitant, out of fear that the first two will not hold up their end of the bargain. In other words, the third individual fears that this is just an elaborate form of competition, rather than a true attempt at cooperation. So the original two will reveal their discovery. They will demonstrate how by not stealing from one another, they can each spend more time pursuing other productive activities. In attempting to prove that they are not just trying to lull others into a false sense of security, they may conceive that they have discovered the intentions of some higher being who has the power to improve their wellbeing. If others behave the same way, they too will be rewarded by this higher power. This is a simple way to convince others that you are not acting out of self-interest (although you are, indirectly), and thus to get them to subscribe and to try to bring in even more individuals.

That might seem like a jump. Remember that this is all happening in an evolutionary time-scale. Maybe two individuals tried to convince a third to subscribe to a cooperative rule hundreds of thousands of times, and undertook hundreds of thousands of strategies. My argument is that the strategy of employing a the idea of a higher being to distance oneself from self-interest and thus seem more genuine and less threatening would have a higher success rate than other strategies. If something has a higher success rate, those individuals that use it are more likely to reap the benefits of cooperation, and are thus more likely to survive and reproduce, passing the both the ideas and the genes that randomly influenced them to come up with such an idea to the next generation.

Also remember that no individuals are really acting selflessly. Each is pursuing their own self-interest but needs to convince the others of the contrary in order to get them to subscribe to the common set of behaviors that benefit everyone. They believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, but they don’t really care about the other ships.

Those in the group also have the mechanism of defending themselves from those outside the group who attempt to steal from them. This is a natural extension from deciding not to steal from one another: no theft of any kind by or against anyone in the group will be tolerated. This further incentivizes those outside the group to join, because the number of individuals they can steal from is diminishing, so the sacrifice of joining and not stealing is smaller.

Eventually the group will be large enough that it becomes complex, and the rules will need refining. Is stealing acceptable if the individual is destitute and desperate? If not, do they at least get a lighter punishment? Defining “stealing” will necessarily require defining “property,” which will raise its own questions. Can you own and idea? A person? The air we breathe?

The complexities will require a central human authority to determine rulings. If the original rules were said to have been the discovered intentions of a higher being, then these authority figures will naturally be those who always follow the rules and justifiably are the best at listening to the higher being(s) in order to discern the answers. Thus evolves the hierarchy of religion.

Government only separates itself from this evolutionary branch of human organization at the point where the structure becomes so ingrained that the justification of being the interpreter of the God(s) is unnecessary. The leadership separating from a conceived higher power gives it more freedom to adapt and change the rules, which enables it to build power and grow its own wealth faster than anyone else’s, while maintaining legitimacy. The adaptability of a human leader, justified by always doing what is best for the group, is a clear advantage over the religious leader, who is undeniably tied to only those rules already stated, and has limited flexibility in changing them to fit the needs of the group.

The separation will not happen instantaneously, but rather there will likely be a period where the religious leaders exist alongside the government leaders, requiring their blessing to rule. Eventually, however, the legitimacy of the government will allow it to stand on its own, and the adaptability and power thus obtained will eventually lead to inequality drastic enough to spur democratization and decentralization.

These days, it seems to me that religion is going out of style. The material benefits it offers its members are slim to none, and mostly come in forms of cerebral comfort. God will take care of you after you die. He has a plan. These ideas exist because they are attractive and comforting, not because they are based in truth, or because they confer any material benefits. But the government, not the Church, enforces “Thou shall not steal”, a credo that does carry material benefit.

In developed countries, religions have very little to offer to attract new members anymore. Rules on cooperation and competition are thoroughly laid out by governments. And our decentralized and democratic government institutions adapt to changing ideas of property to minimize conflict and thus maximize utility. Religion only persists in the modern world because of how deeply it was ingrained before the slow separation of the leadership from the ideas of the deity. Religion was our main epistemology — our way of knowing what is true.

I now return to Peter van Inwagen’s critique of Paul Bloom’s theory. The question at hand is whether my cooperation-based theory is incompatible with a larger theory that has a supernatural actor pulling the strings. The answer is yes. Bloom made points arguing that the existence of a higher being might be an “evolutionary accident,” arising from a combination of other evolutionarily advantageous traits, such as the tendency to assume agency when sensory information is unexplained. In such a theory, it is conceivable that a higher being with some power over us could lead those traits to be advantageous, thus creating the “evolutionary accident” Bloom refers to. Thus according to Inwagen, his naturalistic theory does not “resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation.”

My theory, on the other hand, does resist such incorporation. My theory explains the rise and fall of the power of religion, and any supernatural power would not create a system of belief only to let it rot and become inferior to other epistemologies. Thus this theory cannot be compatible with any supernaturalistic theory of religion.

One more point before concluding. Should my theory be correct, the power of religion to attract new members ought to be strongest in the areas of the world where there is much to gain by uniting in terms of chances for survival and reproduction. In areas of immense poverty and pain, devoid of any reliable government friendly to the great world powers to provide improvements in material wellbeing, religion will thrive. In such a situation, religion could even justify actions the rest of us might deem unacceptable and barbaric, as those involved protect their own from the outsiders that try to steal from them. Those operating in such a way would not be evil. Rather, they would simply be trying to build widespread cooperation following the intentions of the higher being(s), by any means necessary. I’ll leave it to you to consider if you can think of any contemporary religious groups that fit this description.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have a background in evolutionary biology or in religious studies, nor am I the most eloquent and clear writer. I would love to engage any reader in an open and respectful discussion of these topics. I want to be challenged. Please bring me your comments and critiques. Thank you for reading.