Friday, April 10, 2009

Hard questions, easy answers. Today: Are religions naturally evolved?

A while back, I asked myself (and a colleague): could it be that religion is the product of evolution? After all, there is abundant evidence that people(s) make god(s), while the evidence for the converse is, uhm, spotty to say the least... Neither he (nor I) were totally clear on the answer. But now I think the question falls into the "sounds harder than it is" category. This apparently hard question has an easy (i.e., intuitively plausible but also, I think, correct) answer: Religions seem to answer the big questions, such as "what's it all about" quite well.
An evolutionary and systems theory explanation: Once your control system ("brains") get big enough, self-consciousness and other complications arise. And then you rather naturally ask questions such as "why am I here", "where do I come from", and "what's it all about". Big brains => self-aware then self-consciousness => trouble. But religion delivers the reassuring answers: Relax, it's all good. You're here for a purpose. In fact, the whole darn universe is made for you (in some religions, anyways) -- even god (or his son) looks just like you!! (Carl Sagan calls this "the human conceit" and quibs "oh my -- what a coincidence" ...) Of course Darwin delivered a major narcisstic injury, explaining away the need for the sky-daddy (even if he didn't like this repercussion himself).

So this explains it: We (having evolved large brains and asking the "big questions") want comfort and reassurance that all is good. Religion caters to that need. So say we all.

Daniel Dennett also studies and explains religion as a natural phenomenon in Breaking the Spell. Turns out that the evolutionary argument for religion has also been evoked to ask: If religion evolved naturally, then it must be good for something, right? We don't just evolve characteristics for nothing. So what's the purpose of having evolved religion? Dennett points out that the flu also naturally evolved. What's it good for? It's good at being copied and spread. I think the same applies for religion, but we have these additional levels of explanation: it's good at providing answers, makes you feel good about yourself and the world (restrictions apply: some traits make you feel really bad, you immoral sinner! But that's another story...); it can also help group cohesion, channel ideas, organize masses, etc. But above all, it gives you answers!

Next time: Religion, genes, and memes: Cui bono?

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