[Here’s a little light (1,900 words) reading for the weekend. I banged it out rather quickly so I apologize for any typos, misspellings or poor grammar. I’ll monitor this thread over the weekend so I don’t end up posting a hot-button topic and then ignoring it like I did last time.]
In this sweeping narrative that takes us from the Stone Age to the Information Age, Robert Wright unveils an astonishing discovery: there is a hidden pattern that the great monotheistic faiths have followed as they have evolved. Through the prisms of archaeology, theology, and evolutionary psychology, Wright’s findings overturn basic assumptions about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and are sure to cause controversy. He explains why spirituality has a role today, and why science, contrary to conventional wisdom, affirms the validity of the religious quest. And this previously unrecognized evolutionary logic points not toward continued religious extremism, but future harmony.
I haven’t read the book yet, but based on his previous works I can guess where he is going with this. I’ve been thinking about this subject as well for some time, and I ‘ve been writing up my thoughts on the matter in detail, but since Wright may have beaten me to the punch I thought I would try to get my tiny bit of priority in. (Besides, I owe him for that bar fight in Tucson.)
I believe that religions and all other facets of human culture are subject to and created by natural selection. Even though I am a philosophical agnostic and a functional atheist, I have come to a science-based understanding that religions serve an evolutionary purpose, and that they provide a vital mechanism for enhancing and maintaining cooperation that no secular mechanism can duplicate.
Traditionally atheists have argued that religions cannot have any functional foundations because there are many different religions with so many different stories about how the universe works. They commonly point out that since most religions contradict each other, the vast majority of religions have to be wrong even if we were to assume that one is right. Science produces just one best explanation for each phenomenon. We don’t have hundreds of different, equally valid models of the solar system. How could religion be any different? Therefore, the existence of many different religions proves that religions are arbitrary, fictional, fabrications like novels. It follows that religion has little to teach us about life and cannot serve as any kind of rational guide for humanity.
This seems like a plausible argument. I used to believe it myself but in the last 15 years my ongoing study of evolutionary theory convinced me that atheists have missed one crucial piece of evidence: We don’t have a vast variety of contradictory religions, we have a vast variety religions that all teach the same thing.
In one critical functional area, all religions are identical.
(Some caveats: This is blog post not a book. To present the ideas in condensed form, I assumed the reader has some knowledge of different religions, cultures, philosophies, etc. and can fill in gaps and qualifiers on their own. When I say atheists, I mean most atheists. I just don’t want to have to load up the post with qualifiers. If you have doubts, set aside for now the question of whether culture is subject to natural selection. Atheists have to assume that it is and that is relevant to my argument. When I talk about natural selection or any other natural behavior “choosing”, “making” “forcing”, etc. these are just useful anthropomorphizations. I am well aware that natural selection does not choose anymore than gravity chooses to pull a stone to the ground.)
When atheists offer up religion’s diversity as proof it is fictional and arbitrary, they make an evolutionary-theory rookie mistake. Evolutionary Theory 101 states that natural selection selects solely for the phenotype and ignores the genotype. The phenotype is the actual observable physical characteristics of an organism, such as proteins, eyes, wings etc. The genotype is the actual genes that code for those physical characteristics and pass them along to the next generation. It is important to remember that natural selection selects only for the phenotype, because many different genotypes can create the same phenotype.
This happens in convergent evolution when two entirely separate species evolve the same functional characteristic. The structurally identical bills of flamingos and the mouths of baleen whales serve as the canonical example of convergent evolution. Hundreds of millions of years have elapsed since birds and whales shared genotypes, yet the bills and mouths both contain not only the same baleen structures inside but also the distinctive curve that gives the flamingo its appearance of having a smile. They differ only in size and the tissues used to form them. The bills and mouths share the same phenotype because they share the same function of filter feeding on plankton. The laws of physics mandate an optimum form for filter feeding with a mouth-like structure, so natural selection uses different genes to create the same functional shapes. It’s like making a sword. A bronze sword and an iron sword share the same functional shape even though made of different materials.
How do the concepts of phenotype, genotype and parallel evolution apply to religion? Simple, the stories that religions tell, the cosmology/creation stories, the moral parables, the models of moral consequence etc serve as the genotype. The behaviors that those stories foster in a religion’s adherents are the phenotypes.
Looking at religion it becomes clear that while the genotypes are massively diverse, the phenotypes are virtually identical. Religions are the result of parallel evolution as natural selection seeks to use diverse genotypes to create the same functional phenotype.
Do all religions produce the same behaviors? Yes, this is quite clear, once you strip out all the ritualistic elements and minor adaptations to local environments. The primary behaviors that all religions seek to fosters are cooperation between individuals in the group and the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their immediate desires and benefit for the long term good of their group.
All religions condemn personal pleasure seeking with sex, intoxicants, gambling etc that impinge on an individual’s responsibility to the group. All religions require adherents to treat at least the other adherents fairly, honestly and compassionately. All religions treat obligations to children and family as a primary obligation. All religions hold self-denial in general as a virtue. There isn’t any longstanding religion that stigmatizes self-denial, honesty, family, etc.
The absence of any self-indulgent religions provides strong evidence that religions are subject to natural selection. At any given time in history, right up to the modern day, myriad little sects have existed that sell religious justifications for self-indulgent behavior. Many cults have exploited the obvious appeal of “free love” or other pleasures to recruit members. Despite this obvious marketing advantage in the marketplace of ideas, such cults never survive long enough to evolve into religious sects. Given that new religions evolve fairly regularly, this suggests that religions’ suppression of self-indulgent behavior has long served a critical function in the vast majority of (if not all) human cultures.
The similarities in religion extend to the means by which they shape adherents’ behavior. All religions use an inescapable, supernatural mechanism of moral consequence. Every religion creates a story that explains that every negative action has a supernaturally enforced negative consequence which no human can escape. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have the judgment of God. Hinduism and Buddhism have Karma. Most religions have some variant on of the concept of hell, i.e., extensive pain in the afterlife triggered by immoral acts while living. Adherents believe that no matter how clever, powerful or immune from human action they might be they cannot escape the supernatural consequences of their actions.
The function of the mechanism is obvious. As humans are creations of natural selection, we have the selfish imperatives of natural selection hardwired into us. All humans seek advantage for themselves and will be tempted to commit acts for their own benefit that will harm another individual or the group. If individuals believe they face only the chance of human discovery and material consequence, they may commit the act if they think they can escape discovery of its consequences. Conversely, if the individual believes that supernatural forces monitor every action they take and punish them inexorably, the individual is less likely to take the action.
In this way, religion can promote cooperation-enhancing behaviors far more effectively than any secular mechanism. For example, the fear of God’s judgment or karma could restrain the behavior of powerful sociopathic ruler accountable to no human agency but no secular mechanism could do so.
(Note that the mechanism need not be perfect to provide advantage, just as the parts of organism need not be physically optimal to do so. Better than the immediate competition is all that is required.)
I think that for all of human history, we’ve been looking at the question of religious diversity backwards. The history of religious debates and conflict has conditioned us to think of religions as being defined by their story genotypes. We’ve been pointlessly parsing the minutia of their genotypes instead of examining the adaptive value of their phenotypes. It’s as if Darwin had started with a detailed knowledge of genes and then tried to figure out their function without paying any attention to the actual structures the genes created in the organism or those structures’ interactions with the environment.
For a religion to function, it doesn’t matter if the religion says that the earth was created in 7 days 6,000 year ago by a single omnipotent god or whether it says the universe exists because we wish it to. It doesn’t matter if a religion’s adherent believes that if he doesn’t cooperate he will face inescapable consequence by the judgment of God or the operation of a supernatural moral version of Newtons Third Law. It merely matters that he believes that he will inescapably suffer a consequence he fears and that he adjust his behavior to be more cooperative.
There you have the outline of my (probably not terribly original) idea. One could write entire books on this idea (and I suspect Wright has) but I think I’ve outlined the idea enough for people to start thinking about it. I think we need to seriously reexamine our secular assumptions about the behaviors that religions seek to foster. We have long defaulted to the idea that unless a behavior fostered by religion had an immediate and obvious benefit in the short term, then the behavior had no benefit. We have assumed that, like the genotypical fictional stories of religion that foster them, the behaviors were usually arbitrary and without any rational basis. However, if the same religions, evolving independently in widely diverse physical and cultural environments, all evolve the same group of phenotypical behaviors, then the only rational, scientific conclusion is that these behaviors are necessary for human survival in a wide range of environments.
Instead of defaulting to the idea that each individual and even each generation can apprehend the long-term consequences of all behaviors and can therefore safely disregard the evolved behaviors of religion, we should assume that the universal behaviors that all religions share are necessary for a functioning society. We should only abandon that assumption after careful, long-term experimentation.