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Atheist Community of Austin
The evolution of religion

Here's a conundrum (or a chimera, not sure which): It seems evident that, in the evolution of humans as social organisms, religion has been favored by natural selection. The reasons for this appear quite obvious to this observer:

1. Religion unites groups for purposes of cooperative ventures ranging from basic survival to war and other conflicts with competing groups. There seems to be no force that provides a more powerful social glue than shared beliefs, with the possible exceptions of shared threats and shared enemies.

2. The human brain has evolved to a level of complexity such that our minds are capable of creating a great deal of mischief --- the notion of "self" vs. "other," the awareness of our own mortality, the ability to imagine possible futures and ruminate about the past, etc. However, our minds have not evolved to the point where we are automatically able to see the foolishness of our own preoccupations with past, future, and self-concept, so we desperately search for answers to questions that might otherwise plague us. Religion fulfills this need for most individuals.

3. The human social organism has evolved as a hierarchical system in virtually every known society. The most powerful leaders have traditionally been those who ascend to the highest "spiritual" status, who are believed to have special access to mystical insights. From tribal shamans to the Pope, from the village guru to the ayatollah --- power accumulates in those with religious status.

4. Given that life is unpredictable and our day to day survival hinges on uncontrolled factors such as weather and disease, spiritual leaders and the rituals of religion have provided humanity with the sense of control that we naturally seek. If the crops fail, we can blame witches or our own sins, we can do a rain dance or sacrifice a child to the sun god. The illusion of control is an instinctive need; religion provides an illusory but potent sense of control to the extent that one clings fervently to one's beliefs.

In "modern times" we have been treated to technological methods of achieving some control (heating and AC, irrigation systems, etc.) and we have found other methods of binding people together in cooperative groups (shared economic interests, shared secular ideals, shared systems for protection from external threats, etc.) However, very few people have let go of religious beliefs.

I propose that religion will continue to be a dominant force in human societies for countless generations because:

(a.) Control is impossible to attain; real and perceived threats persist regardless of our best efforts to contain them, and new threats continually arise;

(b.) Most people lack the imagination to find meaning and purpose in the absence of mythology and mysticism, nor is there any particular force in the mind of most individuals that would motivate them to question their mystical beliefs;

(c.) Religion has not lost its power to unite large numbers of people for purposes of creating a sense of belonging to the larger community, personal meaning, and imposing their will on other groups through peaceful political processes (at best) or war (at worst);

(d.) There are no selective advantages to atheism or agnosticism as long as religion does not interfere with scientific and technological methods for adapting to changes in the factors that contribute to survival and procreation.

To summarize --- The fact that every society has evolved with some form of shared mystical belief is evidence that such beliefs hold an evolutionary advantage, and there is little or no evidence that this will change at any time in the foreseeable future. However, religious fanaticism (e.g., fundamentalist Christians and Muslims) will be held in check by forces that naturally act against the unrestrained global domination of a single fanatical ideology. Extremist beliefs are naturally held in check by the same factors that perpetuate religion.

Would enjoy reading some feedback.

I can't agree that religion is a dominant force in human societies because I believe it to be a leech on society. I don't think religion will be eliminated completely, since it does serve a purpose for people. But the dominances that you speak of will have to be redefined. Dominance in politics? Dominance in people's personal affairs? Dominance in economic? Dominance in what? The two most dominating force in all societies is fear and greed/want. Religion feeds off both fear and greed. Will we ever have a world without fear and want? Probably not in my lifetime, but I hope that future generations will finally figure it out.

It's like going to the bathroom. Everybody has to do it, but most modern societies don't do it in the woods if they have toiletries and sanitation available. If we have a better way of doing things, most likely people will move towards that. Right now religion has its claws on every part of society, but their relevance depends on the comfort that it provides. Behaviors in society are not primarily base in what spiritual authority a group prescribes to. There are factors such as education, power struggle/politics, the health of the group, and innovations that a group has over other groups. In politics, religion is used to wage and manage wars, but it's more about power than about God. In economics, it's about using religion to market to people's fears in order to make people buy more. In the individuals, it's about the unknown. Life and death, why things are the way they are and religion provides it to those people who choose to believe it. But I would not consider it to be a dominating force.

You make some very good points, Sammy. Perhaps I've overstated the DIRECT effect of religion on various aspects of society. You gave some good examples, such as in politics. In the USA, political conservatives used religion as a basis for organizing people around such "moral" issues as gay rights, abortion, and patriotism (as manifested in xenophobia and ignorance about other nations.) Thus, while religion takes on an appearance as a prime motivator of politics, the reverse may be a more accurate picture, with the warped genius of analysts like Karl Rove pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Perhaps psychological studies revealing common cognitive shortcuts and errors reveal a lot about superstition as well. Overwhelmed with information, the human mind has to simplify the flood of data continuously coming in, and one of the easiest shortcuts for explaining complex phenomena is to assign a primal cause such as "God's will" or "my horoscope" rather than performing the relatively difficult task of finding out the myriad reasons why any given event occurs. Evolution itself is such a complex concept that it's difficult for most people to wrap their heads around all the pieces of evidence, the time scales, and the nature of self-organizing open systems.

God did it. Want fries with that?

besides what religion offers to the individual (a cushion on that whole death thing) religion does provide an annoyingly practical thing that has no real equal.

And that is a single source, easy to understand (well the basics anyway) set of rules for behavior/morality that picks up where a legal system leaves off.

How to behave in a morally or ethically correct fashion is not the same thing as how to behave in a legally correct fashion. Even a book of etiquette falls short of the mark since etiquette's goal is simply how to put others at ease.

Atheist parents of course raise perfectly wonderful children without all the nonsense, but the examples we use for the lessons are usually based on our own experiences. But if I were to say I wanted to teach my kids the lesson of the Good Samaritan, you would know exactly what I was referring to, and how the story goes, and what the moral of the story is. Not only would you know it, but so did your grandparents and so does the guy down the street...

Religion has generational continuity on its side. Without a doubt, I believe this is religions greatest asset.

Damn good stuff, cdo. We have a few million years of oral traditions being passed across the generations, stories that contain such essential information as who we are, where we came from, how we should live, and all the other goodies encoded in myths and parables. The way evolution is now understood to work is in a systemic fashion --- organisms don't evolve by simple linear natural selection, rather the entire system (all organisms and their environment together) evolves, everything interconnected.

Our brains would have evolved to grasp important information in concert with the evolution of our ability to acquire and communicate that knowledge. Memory for oral traditions is known to be most accurate when the details are interwoven in cohesive stories such as those that are told in the Torah, Upanishads, Greek plays, and whatever tales were told around the fire in tribal societies.

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