Is religion an evolved trait

48


Discussion by: david.mayntz

Hi, I have a question that I would love to hear some comments on. In the british tv documentary, Secrets of the superbrands 1, a brain scientist suggests that: “the technology megabrands have harnessed a way to impact people’s lives and exploit the areas of the brain that have evolved to process religion”

Link: http://www.psfk.com/2011/05/secrets-of-the-superbrands-how-apple-products-affect-your-brain.html

 

When I heard that statement I started to speculate about whether this is indeed the case. My question is: do you think there is evidence to suggest that there some time in history has been a selection pressure for people to become more religious and that there are places in the brain that have evolved for the sole use of processing religion? If so it implies that religion has had a selective advantage in prehistoric time? I wonder whether that is the case?

Or would it make more sense to suggest that region and superbrands are both exploiting the brain but in that case I am not really sure what kind of functions these areas originally were evolved to process.

I am looking forward to hear your comments. Thanks

48 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t know about selective pressure (presumably this means for survival), but one can easily see how there would be social pressure from a religious-minded community bringing to bear on others a pressure to conform.

    Your OP asks a good question: why there would be selective pressure to evolve a religious mind. After all, what survival advantage might it have? This leads me to think of other things like:

    a) If there was a survival advantage, the sites like this which seek a ‘cure’ for religion might be going against evolution itself.

    b) I sense that the idea of a creator who made the world and sky came about through creatures wondering about where we came from and how we got here. But why would that creature wonder such a thing. Why not just concentrate on surviving?

    In my view, man is so much more than an evolved animal and, to the best of my knowledge, man has always pondered such lofty things. To me, this does not suggest evolution but special design. Also, in respect of atheists who strongly oppose such views – why does should it matter to them?

    Back to the point, megabrands have certainly done their research and exploited the way the human mind works to their advantage. However, I don’t think that it necessarily follows that religious bodies have done the same thing. First off, thousands of years ago, they wouldn’t have done the research that modern marketing strategists have done. However, there is something in every one of us that religion can tap into: the human need for a sense of value and purpose. I would say we have been designed with such a desire built into us.

    Just a thought to ponder.

  2. Stephen Pinker’s cheesecake.

    Those who evolved to find fats and sugars delicious were more successful. Was there a selection pressure to enjoy cheesecake? I’m not saying I have reason believe this is the case, but it is a scenario I like to evoke when pondering evolution and psychological phenomena.

  3. I think you’re looking at this through too narrow a window.

    Whether or not he meant it in this way, the “area of the brain” he’s referring to (not so much an “area”) would be the way in which we process superstition and mob mentality, not just religion. Superstition is what leads to religious mindsets, and Dawkins touches on it in some of his books himself. there certainly is a survival advantage towards superstition, to finding patterns where there are none, to false positives. It’s much better to run when the bushes russle because there might be a tiger in them, then to stand still because there might not be. Mob mentality also aids in survival, simply because it keeps a group together doing the same thing and ensures the survival of the majority, if some of the herd get spooked and start running, it’s in the best interest of the rest of the herd to follow, even if they don’t know what they’re running from.

    The selective pressure for these traits occured long before religion was invented, but this tendency for superstition and mob mentality is what allowed religion to flourish. It allows people to believe things for completely irrational reasons and encourages belief in things simply because others also believe in them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a similar case for megabrands.

    As to whether it’s intentional exploitation, in the case of Megabrands, most likely, but for most religions (I won’t say none because there certainly are some religions in the business of exploitation) I would say it is just a glitch of neuopsychology. Like Meme’s cheesecake analogy, we evolved to find high calorie foods tasty because it kept us alive when food supply was low, but today in an age of food abundance it makes us fat and diabetic. In past eras religious thought processes protected us from making stupid mistakes, but today, they cause us to make the stupidest of mistakes.

  4. Humans are tool makers and tool users. Religion is a tool of the mind and so is science. How many species grow from being many disparate small groups to fully fledged cities of many millions of organisms in the space of 25,000 years?

    • In reply to #4 by Tarantella:

      Humans are tool makers and tool users. Religion is a tool of the mind and so is science.

      If that is true then science is a complete set of Black and Decker power tools and religion is a saw with a handle that is also a blade and as likely to cut your hand off as you use it as to cut a piece of wood in half. (sorry I couldn’t think of a better bad tool example, shop class was the only class I ever had to struggle with just to pass)

  5. In reply to #4 by Tarantella:

    Humans are tool makers and tool users. Religion is a tool of the mind and so is science. How many species grow from being many disparate small groups to fully fledged cities of many millions of organisms in the space of 25,000 years?

    Seeing as we have a sample of one, that question cannot be answered. I realise you asked it rhetorically, but questions without answers don’t make very good rhetorical questions, your insinuation cannot be reliably interpretted.

  6. Like Lonevoice I am unsure there would be selection for religious genotypes in a specific sense. However others (including Dawkins?) have argued that genes leading to unquestioning acceptance of authority figures, especially in childhood, might be advantageous – ‘Don’t eat that berry!’ – ‘Don’t cross that road!’ – etc. It may also be that parts of the brain, eg the temporal lobes, underlie religious experiences such as hallucinations or altered states of consciousness in structures determined by genes, perhaps as a side effect of other benefits – imaginative problems solving? (the latter a very wild and unevidenced guess!).

    The social constructs of religions (memes) could confer some advantages in some contexts, ie religion may sometimes benefit individuals and societies, despite the beliefs being false. Peoples in war prone regions or periods might fight better if faithful to authority and religiously inspired. One could argue that the OT contains fragmentary accounts of real events in the history of the Hebrews and those suggest that strong faith might produce strong armies: certainly the documented Muslim conquests might support the idea.

    Yet how such social memes might be represented in the brain I cannot say. Jung claimed there were universal archetypes – maybe there are archetypes of a sort, ie inherited brain structures that underlie notions of loyalty. But again this is highly speculative.

    I recall a conversation with a Buddhist (I go to meditation sessions) about his belief in rebirth. He used the old argument that since I couldn’t disprove rebirth, it might be true. I replied with Russell’s riposte that not being able to disprove there was a teapot orbiting Mars didn’t mean there was such a teapot. He later returned with the question as to how useful belief in a celestial teapot might be (none) versus belief in rebirth (which might encourage good actions in this for a better rebirth, etc). This ‘usefulness’ argument seems wrong to me – we shouldn’t tell ourselves things are true because they make us virtuous. But all the same some beliefs, however misguided, might make someone a better person. Furthermore, the ‘usefulness’ argument is applied in science – ie that theories work in practice and can be applied to technologies.

    However, whereas science revises its theories in the light of experience, religions generally don’t. Indeed faith seems to entail resisting change – which may be useful in sieges or other contexts requiring resilience. Yet, as the environment changes, the potential for useful unreason will vary and arguably in many parts of the world has fallen: indeed strong resilience may later become maladaptive outdatedness. Thus the memetic ‘inheritance’ of beliefs may mean that the specific myths of one one time and place are less useful, to be supplanted by other myths or indeed none. Arguably, in many parts of the world Buddhism diminished during the turmoil of past centuries as the more psychologically and physically aggressive memes of Christianity and Islam advanced. The seeming collapse of Buddhist pacifism in Burma is of course shocking, but maybe illustrates how once successful faith based memes of belief and value systems struggle to adapt well to change, in this case a rise in Islamic influences and, perhaps, the lifting of a dictatorship that had until now suppressed all disputes.

    Overall then I think that memetic and perhaps (brain) genetic arguments can be made for religion having adaptive value at times, not least adverse situations, but that the prerequisite of faith – to retain belief despite evidence – can become maladaptive in the face of major change. I suppose this site reflects part of the change that might diminish the strength of religion – or at least, superstition.

    • Hello Steve

      I agree with a lot of what you have written.

      However, I would suggest that whether or not religious belief is maladaptive in today’s social environment is absolutely not the point. IF it has had a net positive survival value over the many hundreds of thousands of years of human development, it would very likely have become an innate part of human cognitive function. The fact that our appendix is now useless does not prevent us from being born with one.

      Steven Pinker, among others, argues for the existence of a ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD). An innate metal structure which pre-disposes a child to acquire any language to which it is exposed.

      It is, in my view, highly probable that we also have a ‘religion acquisition device’ (a RAD, if you will) which operates on almost exactly the same basis.

      One can argue that religious belief is now unscientific, pointless, counter-productive, illogical, unfounded on reality etc. And these arguments may well be strong. However, such arguments – however strong – cannot and ought not be used to rubbish the possible existence of an innate psychological pre-disposition to religious belief.

      Whether we can easily remove this ‘religiosity function’ from the human psyche – like an unnecessary and potentially harmful appendix – is very questionable.

      Secondly, I would argue that religions – like genes – DO in fact evolve in response to changes in the social environment. The Christian belief system, for example, has evolved into many evolutionary branches. The rate of such evolution in any one religion may impact upon its survival. Another apparently ‘successful’ modern religious ‘mutation’ is that of being “spiritual but not religious”. This religious belief, I think, has a stronger chance of ‘survival’ because, like the flu virus, it is highly flexible and adaptable to social change.

      Regards
      Bruno Ditri

      In reply to #6 by steve_hopker:

      Like Lonevoice I am unsure there would be selection for religious genotypes in a specific sense. However others (including Dawkins?) have argued that genes leading to unquestioning acceptance of authority figures, especially in childhood, might be advantageous – ‘Don’t eat that berry!’ – ‘Don’t cros…

  7. I don’t think that “Religion” itself is part of human nature. I think that humans are superstitious and social. Religion only happens when those two traits come together. However, religious organisations could attract people with either of those two traits.

  8. It seems obvious that religion – as a trait – did evolve from a vague beginning to sophisticated global autocracies with dogmatic monopolies on “the truth”. How it developed from a simple start to claims of exclusive divine favour and irrefutable edicts is for such professionals as psychologists, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists to argue. I am not one of these, but I have read much history; consequently I would venture to suggest that religions may be split into two major categories:

    1) Those whose literature is mainly devoted to ancient sages giving advice for individuals generally and even states to behave towards others with equity and mutual benefit. These, in my opinion, are Buddhist, Hindu, Tao, Shinto and perhaps a number of other faiths.

    2) Those whose “holy” books pay lip service to humanity in general, but at their core is the desire for world domination. These are the three Middle Eastern religions.

    There isn’t a lot that I would say about the first category, but as far as the three Abrahamic religions are concerned, it seems to me that their single root sprouted in ancient Sumer. The Sumerians of the fourth millennium BC, however, did not establish a “religion” as we understand it today. What concerned them was the establishment of law and order for which they set a number of “E” (houses), to control and regulate agriculture, justice, family affairs, military action, and other “houses”, each under the aegis of a “Lord”.

    With the passage of time, these “houses” became “temples”, and the House-Lords became “gods”, and with the further passage of time, the development of literature, and the popularity of fabulous stories, the gods in such classics as the Enuma Elish, the Gilgamish Epic, and various others, were given credit (or blame) for everything that could not be explained with their current knowledge, such as the creation of the universe, the emergence of the first man, the reason for a great flood, and an explanation for the puzzling case of a man (from Sipar, later the biblical Job) who lived all his life as a model citizen, but would still have a mountain of ills heaped upon him.

    The main pillars on which rests the earliest sacred literature of the Jews, from which sprang the other two Abrahamic superstitions, sprouted through aggressive plagiarism after the Babylonian invasion of Palestine in 597 BC when about 400 Israelites of rank were taken as POWs to Babylon.

    Among the exiles was Ezra, a literate but not very numerate man, for whom the ancient Sumerian literature concerning creation and other mystical stories was a “god-send” which he reclaimed as Judaic “originals” and which form the main part of Genesis. It is well to remember that the first page of Genesis credits universal affairs to gods (Elhim) in the Sumerian tradition, not to a single god (El). So much for monotheism.

    It was only a small step for the authors of the second Abrahamic religion, to pinch the 8th century BC character (Emmanuel) in the Judaic saga (following the Assyrian invasion of 722 BC) and claim him to be their 1st century AD leader, while Paul wiped out the remainder and established a Neo-Roman superstition (see “Annales” by Tacitus) which became established as the “Christianity” that we know and love today.

    The author of the third Abrahamic religion, went one better, he plagiarised the plagiarism and added a few tasty morsels of his own. Here it is Allah, not YHWH, who heaps calamities on “Pharaoh” (whichever he may be among the 355 Pharaohs). It is Allah who tells Mary not to worry about being a single mum, and it is Allah who tells the prophet about the mysteries of the universe, the creation of man, and the attributes of heaven in words that neither the prophet nor anyone else could understand.

    There is more, but this will do for now.

    • In reply to #8 by ZedBee:

      It seems obvious that religion – as a trait – did evolve from a vague beginning to sophisticated global autocracies with dogmatic monopolies on “the truth”. How it developed from a simple start to claims of exclusive divine favour and irrefutable edicts is for such professionals as psychologists, ev…

      Wow! I’ll take it on trust that you have your facts right here! Pretty impressive!

  9. “do you think there is evidence to suggest that there some time in history has been a selection pressure for people to become more religious and that there are places in the brain that have evolved for the sole use of processing religion?”

    I think its an open question but the short answer is no, I don’t think there was ever an adaptation specifically for religion.

    “If so it implies that religion has had a selective advantage in prehistoric time? I wonder whether that is the case?
    Or would it make more sense to suggest that region and superbrands are both exploiting the brain but in that case I am not really sure what kind of functions these areas originally were evolved to process.”

    I think you hit on the better theory and the one that at least from my reading most people doing science related to religion believe is probably true, that is that there are other adaptations to the brain that the meme of religion can exploit. Again, this is all very much an active area of research but some examples of these adaptations are an adaptation for “fairness” (reciprocal altruism) to practice what the game theory people call “tit for tat” so that we are more likely to do good back to people who have been good to us and to want to not reward or even punish those that don’t. Another likely adaptation I think is the tendency to want to distinguish between in groups and out groups, to want to be part of a group, to recognize those that aren’t in the group, and to be altruistic to people in the group and aggressive and exploitive to those who aren’t. To the extent that the megabrands stuff makes any sense I think that is the better explanation that these megabrands may be exploiting some of the same characteristics of the mind that religion exploits.

  10. Is faith in Evolution a religious trait? Many posts imply or state that believing evolution is freedom. Belief in evolution changes behavior by adhering to Evolutionist theory, so freeing individuals to live for themselves, instead of God. The uncompromisable fact of Evolution is “There is no God.” So, as Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody”, preferably oneself, right? Could it be perceived that with a set of theories acting as dogma (tidbits of which can be debated), and the self as the center and reason for living, Evolution is a religion based on the presuppositions of science?

  11. What use would religion be in a primitive society? It would encourage conservative behaviour. You do what the ancestors did. You do what others do. It provides a mnemonic, a story to explain why we do things a given way. This strategy would nearly always be better for a small group that going off on something new. The reason you do something is because of religion-mediated peer pressure.

    In a society like ancient Egypt it allows an elite to exploit the masses.

    Apple advertises “join the Apple tribe”, “the Apple tribe are elite”, “carry this badge (iPhone) to show others you belong to the Apple tribe). Purchases also in a very obvious way transmit your status within the Applet tribe. That is why you buy the new model, not because the new one is any more useful.

  12. ‘Religion’ (its clear what is, but not so clear what its not) is probably a by-product of various selected mental adaptions in humans such as language, mimesis, social bonding etc – let’s sum them up with the term ‘consciousness’?

    As an aside, ‘consciousness’ is tricky, we all know what it feels like but any evidence for it is purely anecdotal. Maybe our belief in the big C is religious?

  13. In response to Nitya (#16)

    I am delighted to see the note of caution in your response, Nitya. I have, time and again, read contradictory descriptions of the same event; from THE flood to the extinction of THE dinosaurs to you name it. Pooling all the available evidence and pulling out the most likely is about all we can do, particularly because in matters of history it is almost always the winners and survivors who write the history books, not the losers. When reading history, Churchill’s words in the House of Commons always spring to mind, “I know history will prove me right, because I shall be writing it”.

  14. May I add that we can discuss religious traits and truths and social evolution till the cows come home, without reaching a final conclusion, but what does not need an elaborate argument is that, as far as the aggressive religions are concerned, the primary weapon for cowing the masses, is fear:

    The earth shook, and the heavens dropped at the presence of the Lord, said the Psalmist. The unbelievers shall reside in hell forever, says the Quran. And none shall enter the kingdom of heaven unless they believe in Jesus, threaten the gospellers.

    The Roman poet Publius Statius put it rather well when he said, “Primus in orbe deos fecit timor”, which may be translated loosely to read, “The first thing the gods created on earth was fear”.

    • In reply to #19 by ZedBee:

      The Roman poet Publius Statius put it rather well when he said, “Primus in orbe deos fecit timor”, which may be translated loosely to read, “The first thing the gods created on earth was fear”.

      Timor is in the nominative case and deos is accusative. So, fear created the gods, not the gods fear.

        • In reply to #22 by ZedBee:

          In reply to #21 by aldous:
          That makes more sense. I am obliged to you Aldous

          It’s an interesting quotation. I’d never heard it but I looked up the source in Statius’s Thebaid and I’m not sure what lesson we should learn from it. The words are spoken by Capaneus, a warrior leading the siege of Thebes. He defies the gods protecting Thebes and says they won’t be able to stop him from taking the city. This enrages Zeus who strikes him with a thunderbolt as he is climbing a ladder propped against the city wall and Capaneus drops dead in a smouldering heap.

          • In reply to #23 by aldous:

            The point I was trying to make, obviously not too clearly, is that religion, particularly the three Abrahamic religions, and fear, go hand in hand. Zeus’s thunderbolt is a bonus :)

          • In reply to #24 by ZedBee:

            In reply to #23 by aldous:

            The point I was trying to make, obviously not too clearly, is that religion, particularly the three Abrahamic religions, and fear, go hand in hand.

            I agree. Religious adherence is secured by reward and punishment. If the psychological terrors of religion are not enough they are backed up by religious authorities who will do their best to make the lives of non-believers a hell on earth, even if the rewards are mostly reserved for clerics.

          • In reply to #29 by aldous:

            I have no problem with promises of rewards and threats of punishment after death. The faithful can then choose to do good or perpetrate evil if they so pleased when alive and take their chances after death, but that, surely, was not sufficient for the administrators of religion, particularly the three Abrahamic ones, hence the post-dated rewards in heaven, and the deadly fear here on earth of a stoning to death, a burning at the stake (or a boiling in oil), and the severance of hands, feet, and heads, for those who would not tow the line.

  15. I’m not sure about religion per se, but I think a lot of our evolved traits would predispose us to religion.

    Hunter gatherer societies are built on a need to see patterns. To spot berries or areas where food will be found or to see hidden animals. With that trait, necessary for survival, is it any wonder we can then also see Jesus on a piece of burnt toast or Mohammed on a patch of damp. We evolved to look for pattern even when none exists. Hence the rustling of the wind or shadows can be misinterpreted. Especially in a scarier more ignorant world.

    We evolved to pair bond, to care, to live in groups and to form attachments. We did so in a world where life was brutal and short and we didn’t have the luxury of grieving. Therefore why not assuage that grief with a belief that we would see our loved ones again. Or fail to survive by going into a trough of depression.

    We evolved to see cause and effect. Necessary for faming, learning and science and innovation. But in doing so we evolved to see it where there were just coincidences. You pray to a God the rains come your crops succeed, you don’t starve. Coincidence yes, but would you risk testing that hypothesis if starvation were the result.

    We evolved to look for explanations of the world. That has been the driver of science and knowledge and progress. But in the early days with no knowledge than perhaps the cleverest and most logical explanation would have been a deity. 6000 years ago Dawkins may well have been a deist. There was nothing else logically at that time, nor for many years after..

    And we evolved groups that contained people who would exploit the above. Who would take our need for comfort and use it to control. So promise us the chance of seeing our loved ones again if we did x,y z.

    And those very same traits still drive us in non religious arenas. Vaccination denial for example.

  16. Roedy @ #14 and Steve_hopker (@ #6) both make very good points. I myself find it so very easy to envision ways in which the meme Religion can provide a selective advantage that it would surprise me if it has not done so in the past. Increasing group cohesion via commands such as “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” is likely to have provided a benefit during conflict or environmental challenges such as drought, famine, etc; A higher authority which commands one to “go forth and multiply” would clearly impact fitness; An injunction against eating certain foods in the sweltering pre-refrigeration middle east has clear health implications. While all these can certainly be just man made rules, having a superman command them (and declare punishment for violations) would seem likely to increase observance.

    Join these benefits together with a good Agency Detection Device, and you get a religion that yields a selective benefit.

    • Roedy @ #14 and Steve_hopker (@ #6) both make very good points. I myself find it so very easy to envision ways in which the meme Religion can provide a selective advantage that it would surprise me if it has not done so in the past.

      I’d be surprised if the ability of humans to envision all sorts of things has not provided a selective advantage. Of course that doesn’t make me right.

      Increasing group cohesion via commands such as “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” is likely to have provided a benefit during conflict or environmental challenges such as drought, famine, etc;

      And it’s likely to have provided a good reason for conflict, eg. we must kill you unless you worship our god; our god has instructed us to kill you and take your women as slaves; our god says we should kill you because you are working on the wrong day; our god has given your land to us, so you should leave or die.

      A higher authority which commands one to “go forth and multiply” would clearly impact fitness;

      But not for the fitness of the people who have to give up their land for all those going forth and multiplying.

      An injunction against eating certain foods in the sweltering pre-refrigeration middle east has clear health implications.

      Unless that food is all that’s available.

      While all these can certainly be just man made rules, having a superman command them (and declare punishment for violations) would seem likely to increase observance.

      Or increase the killing.

      Join these benefits together with a good Agency Detection Device, and you get a religion that yields a selective benefit.

      Or death.

      In reply to #25 by aplinthjr:

      Roedy @ #14 and Steve_hopker (@ #6) both make very good points. I myself find it so very easy to envision ways in which the meme Religion can provide a selective advantage that it would surprise me if it has not done so in the past. Increasing group cohesion via commands such as “Thou shalt have n…

  17. I don’t think humans have evolved mechanisms for the sole processing of religion. However, our brains have evolved mechanisms that help us make sense of the world. How we make sense of the world greatly depends on trial and error, our concluding premise(wrong or correct) – and countless other social and environmental pressures.

    At some stage, having a poor understanding of the world along with feelings of disempowerment, our ancestors came up with the idea of deities. Mix those ideas with a little fear and paranoia and the need to gain control over whatever is disempowering you, you soon create a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory soon takes the form of religion. The religion – and the spreading of religion – serves to ease the angst caused by the premises involved in the conspiracy theory. But because the religion is the conspiracy theory, it becomes both the cause of the angst as well as the “cure”: like a drug dealer becomes the saviour of a drug addict.

    Remove religion from the picture and today those same mechanisms, along with feelings of disempowerment, continue to produce conspiracy theorists and theories(Planet X, David Icke, The New World Order… and countless more).

    Religions, like other conspiracy theories, are simply flawed and screwed up by-products of our brains trying to control and make sense of the world.

  18. I would think that there would be evidence that would suggest that certain areas of the brain which were predisposed to certain processes… some areas for processing the activities involved with visible processes, some with processing the audible, some for critical thinking, others for creative ‘daydreaming’. I am certainly no voice of authority and I would be a fool to suggest that this brief list is in any way exhaustive; of course it is not. But religious thinking ‘in my brain’ is bundled in the same area as ‘fictional mind-play’, I would imagine that for many, it is the interplay between processes that have ‘pressured values’ which gives rise to imposed views, conflicts of beliefs and what can be described on the face of it as simply ‘irrational thinking’.

    Without science and religion playing a part in existence, one could imagine that forward thinkers, expansive thinkers and debate-lovers would have a blank canvas, too much paint and no reason for agreement… One can see that without science, the evolution of the brain in humans would find solice in the kind of thinking that religion provides… however, my opinion is that is simply a transient stage in evolution… now we know enough to have a basis for evidence-based understanding, we can ‘park’ religion as ‘that thing we did before we found science’. Now we can get on with progress…

    Simon

  19. Look….
    As far as evolution is concerned, I’m thinking that a genetic predisposition for those, (mostly less fortunate) to deliberately believe in things without proof is plain enough. For whatever natural reason, selection for lack of an inability to do the hard work of actually thinking through experiences and phenomenon or just the indulgence in ignorant self-delusion exists.Culturally of course, religion is simply a tool for legalizing hierarchical stratification, similar to hierarchy stratification in other animal and insect populations. Religion is not an evolved trait; it’s byproduct of a lack of reasoning ability.
    Megabrands be damned!

  20. A few years ago I thought evidence had been found showing that part of the brain lights up on a brain scan in response to religious imagery. I haven’t heard of it since, so I suppose the study didn’t amount to much. Pity, because I thought that this confirmed a physical manifestation of religiosity. I liked to think that my brain didn’t possess this neural network, hence my decided lack of belief.

  21. Yes, I think that religious thinking evolved. It probably evolved from the instinct of looking for meaning. In its basic state animals (and modern humans) respond from the store of information that warns of possible threats to survival. Walking along a forest path, a rustle in the bushes can generate a host of reactions in the brain. We invest the sound with meaning – it could mean a bear or perhaps just a squirrel. Either way, we are on alert.

    Same with supernatural beliefs, but with us the mind/ego has evolved to the point where it feels itself to be a separate entity which, like our bodies is geared towards survival. So it latches on to mind created supernatural beliefs to give itself meaning, purpose and the hope/belief of survival.

    We seem to have effectively evolved a brain that has produced a ‘mind’ housing countless concepts. One of these concepts is the belief in a ‘self’ separate from the body; so no wonder it (the mind) looks for meaning.

  22. We have certainly seen how traits of religions help it prevail over other religions in the same population.

    There seems to be a winner take all (at least in Muslim countries).

    Traits that help:

    1. formal proselytising (Mormon, JW)
    2. banning birth control
    3. killing the opposition
    4. major threats to those who would abandon the religion
    5. myth why mere membership makes you superior to other humans
    6. clannishness. I you are Muslim all other Muslims are your brothers in law. Everyone else is definitely not.
    7. discouraging socialising/marrying outside the religion
    8. strict dogma
    • In reply to #35 by Roedy:

      Roedy,

      I agree with your points re the evolution of religion. Question: do you think that a religion may provide a selective benefit to those h. sapiens who adopt the belief?

      Regards.

  23. In reply to Marktony @ #27:

    1. re “Of course [my speculation] doesn’t make me right.” Absolutely. Speculation is not proof. Neither is it disproof. It is speculation. Speculation is fine, in its place. Mine does not make me right; yours does not make you right. You want to see if I am right or wrong? Design a scientific experiment to test my hypothesis. I can sketch out many such experiments. Why don’t I design one, you might ask. Because I have not the financial resources nor the intellectual interest to spend a year or more of my life raising the resources. I’m interested enough to speculate, and if my speculation piques the interest of a scientist studying the origins of the Religious meme, well, good.

    2. re “it’s likely to have provided a good reason for conflict” Absolutely. Whether such an effect a net benefit or detriment would be hard to tease out, but again experiments would be easy to design. However we have many examples of where launching an aggressive attach results in net benefit, and few where it results in a net detriment. Again I suspect (suspect – not ‘have proved’) there is a net benefit, since you rarely see a religious war causing the extinction of the religion of those who started the war, while you frequently see the decimation of the religion of those attacked. Think Inca and all of the many indigenous cultures decimated by christendom.

    3. re. ” not for the fitness of the people who have to give up their land ” Absolutely, of course not. Fitness is about gaining a reproductive advantage over those “others’ you point out. Your objection supports my point.

    4. re “Unless that food is all that’s available.” I think you’ll find that any starving man will violate any religious dogma on food. It’s a case of highly likely death (via starvation) vs relatively less likely death (via food poisoning). Again, your objection supports my point.

    5. re “Or increase the killing.” Huh?

    6. re “Or death.” Again, huh?

  24. I expounded elsewhere how religion might be useful in a primitive society. Similarly a desire to pig out on sodium, fat and sugar. In a society when there is no detectable change between the generations, respect for your elders and a mindless copying of elders and group norms is useful.

    However, things have changed. Just how fast the changes are happening is explosive in the history of our species. Look how many things are rapidly changing all over the world:

    1. equality of the sexes
    2. equality of LGBT people
    3. literacy and learning
    4. lowering the birth rate, dropping of IMR
    5. awareness of climate change and other global environmental impact our species has
    6. decline of religion (look a graph starting 5000 years ago of any of these factors to see how precipitous it is).
    7. decline of physical strength as important.
    8. great progress on treating many different diseases.
    9. rule of law and democracy.
    10. couples choosing their own spouses.
  25. This has been a very interesting topic to read and think about. Of course, none of the assumptions that underlie the assertions in the above comments about how we supposedly evolved a capacity for pondering the supernatural can be proven: they can merely be postulated within the constraints of a naturalistic mindset.

    For example, the idea that the fear invoked by rustling bushes leads to us concluding that life has meaning is interesting, but is not necessarily true. And, I suppose that we have no way of going back in time to see how this process actually happened. We’d need a time machine for that!

    It could be that we were designed by a creator who IS external from us and created us with a capacity to ponder eternal matters. An unthinkable suggestion on this site, I know! The fact that we may feel fear at the sound of a rustling bush could simply be a result of living in a fallen, broken world where dangers lurk; rather than necessarily being a pre-cursor to religious belief, which, as most commentators here seem to agree, has no preceivable selective advantage in itself.

    Has anyone ever done any research on whether animals show any signs of having any spiritual awareness, or even any interest in supernatural things? I don’t know of any, but the fact that we know humans do – and generally observe that animals don’t – suggests that humans are more than evolved animals. Some might say we humans were made to show God’s magnificence* – and the fact that only man has any concept of spirituality, points to this being a reasonable explanation. Ah: except for the fact that you won’t accept it as even a remote possibility!

    *I understand that God’s magnificence is not immediately evident when we all make mistakes and are capable of the most vile acts. However, this is NOT a reflection of God’s character, but another result of a fallen existence. But, I maintain that we are different from animals because we were specially created to be so.

  26. savroD comment 30

    For whatever natural reason, selection for lack of an inability to do the hard work of actually thinking through experiences and phenomenon or just the indulgence in ignorant self-delusion exists.Culturally of course, religion is simply a tool for legalizing hierarchical stratification, similar to hierarchy stratification in other animal and insect populations. Religion is not an evolved trait; it’s byproduct of a lack of reasoning ability. Megabrands be damned!

    Said from the luxury of thousands of years of accumulating knowledge and the comfort of knowing that should your cupboard be empty a quick trip to Tescos will fix it.

    But 6000 years ago? You hear thunder, you have no clue what it is. What does it sound like? Enemy drums or footsteps? But from the sky and louder. What is the most logical thing to do to satisfy human curiosity? Sit there and think someone’ll figure that out in a few thousand years? But unless you make the start will they? So the most logical, the most scientific explanation in the absence of all else is a God of some sort. The irrational thing is clinging to that belief long after better and eventually genuine explanations are found. But by then religion is offering something more. And like us it has evolved into something else.

    Plus we all know, and fail to understand, remarkably logical, intelligent and rational people able to believe. And we all probably envy that ability at times – for example after the loss of a loved one.

    There is far more to be considered than the simple stupidity of clinging to ideas that are 2000 years out of date. I guess the clue is in looking for what ALL religions share and it is afterlife. I guess that is where the original roots lie and that is where the reason for its persistence lies as well.

  27. Nitya, I also read about the “religious site”. From my very materialistic view, not always at hand, I came to think that it would be interesting to know if that site in the brain has anything to do with the recently identified site resposible for the feeling of having company when being alone under very difficult conditions. Alas, when feeling helpless? If so that would be a very prominent driving force to believe in some invisible deity. I.e. when you experience that kind of isolation. Hermits explained? Herd animals we are and many would follow after having heard such a tale from someone rescued. And what is more threatening than being left out of company because of not believing. Religious hypocrites explained? Next step would be to exploit the sense of having been selected by some deity, to gain power and control. Power and control definitely have adaptive values, don’t they? Religious feelings can be excused, powerful churches not.

  28. In the case of Pauline Christianity, what is the evolutionary benefit or reinforcement for such behavior as spreading the Gospel? There is no physical benefit to adhering to the teachings of Christ and his apostles, as stated. Moreover there would obviously be no evolutionary benefit to marrying between the 12 tribes out of a population of ~ 3mil. Furthermore, it seems lightning has struck not once, not twice, but thrice in favor of the Jews. A population gathered together once from Abraham, twice after diasporas from all over the world (the last time after a 1900 year general absence) with a distinct cultural heritage intact, should defy the laws of probability, the theory of evolution, etc.

    • In reply to #43 by shortpolock:

      In the case of Pauline Christianity, what is the evolutionary benefit or reinforcement for such behavior as spreading the Gospel?

      Remember that an evolutionary benefit isn’t always located in the gene pool of the organism in question, but can be ultimately for the survival of a parasite, a virus – or a memeplex which culturally evolves to aid its own propagation, having made use of genetic human propensities towards psychological behaviors like hyper-active agency detection, and for following directions from parents, family or group elders.

      Religion is well explained in The God Virus by Dr Darrel Ray as being a viral memeplex that survives for its own benefit, while deluding its victims into thinking that their particular religion is all about their personal salvation under the dictates and oversight of their specific deity.

      If one thinks rationally – especially if one isn’t infected – about the methodology and effects of religions, it becomes clear that way of looking at the phenomenon is quite clear and plausible, and it explains a lot of religious behavior, sacrifices, indoctrination, faith, proselytizing, out-group hostility and irrationality.

      Thankfully, I was born atheist and was never infected, so am able to see both the blatant and subtle effects upon those suffering from those plagues, as well as the side-effects they have upon me, which is why I study their infections to learn how to remain virus-free, while also mostly avoiding becoming collateral damage around their multi-symptom sicknesses…. Mac.

  29. In a round about way, everything is an evolved trait (because no traits would exist without evolution and the expression of genes), but I don’t think there’s anything in the genetic code that can be specifically described as being the origin of religion as such. Our brains have evolved to see patterns very well, and to see faces very well. So well, in fact, that patterns and faces can be seen when they aren’t actually there (pareidolia/apophenia).While the brain evolved to see patterns and faces, I don’t think we can say that it evolved to commit type I errors per se (it would, through a process of evolution, lean in favor of such errors, as believing a predator is in the bushes when it’s not is more advantageous, for obvious reasons, then believing a predator is not in the bushes when it is). I’d say religion grew out of type I errors that were never corrected (probably because they couldn’t be corrected at the time), branching out into a variety of “rain dances” to appease the angry alpha male primate that seems to control everything (you might have noticed that our primate brethren reacting to thunder storms as if trying to challenge an unseen alpha male in the sky…I think there’s probably Youtube video of it somewhere if you haven’t).

    So, while I again would say it is not an evolved trait per se, it does appear (in my lay opinion) to be an “unintended consequence” (for failure of a better term that I can think of in the moment) of those traits which did evolve.

  30. I don’t know why we were programed to evolve religious beliefs , but since we have the capacity to be “saved” or attain “enlightenment” and these experiences can be scientifically reproduced, including out of body states and near death experiences, this would tend to make me believe that we are genetically programed to believe in religion. this experience of salvation has been experienced by millions of people and gives them cause to believe that God is truly a part of their lives . the phenomenon is also experienced by epileptics and gives them a feeling of nearness to God. If this is not genetic programing for religion , I don’t know what it could be for. maybe someone else has an Idea?

  31. You may see the near-god experiences by an epileptic during an attack to be evidence of an evolved trait, where I see it as a manifestation of a disturbance in the brain. Brainwaves are measured when an attack is induced, and they’re shown to be highly irregular. If a sufferer had no prior knowledge of any particular god or religion at all, I doubt they’d be interpreted this way. It would be possible to gather information about this phenonemon and I can hazard a guess that there’s a correlation of “nearness to god” feelings and religious observance.

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