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Evolutionary Conundrum: Is Religion a Useful, Useless, or Harmful Adaptation?


Contrary to what one might glean from popular science news, traditionally religious people in North America are less likely, not more likely, to believe in superstitions. That is possibly because widely held religious views in North America tend to emphasize law-based explanations for events rather than chance-based ones. They are more likely to credit rational than irrational factors.

Law-based or rational explanations do not exclude miracles by definition. Miracles, if they occur, can be accommodated as interruptions of an established order. A playwright might come on stage to talk to the audience at a given point in the performance of her play. Especially if she fears the police will shortly break in to arrest everyone present (in some places, that could happen). In nature, a medical patient might start to improve in a way not clearly accounted for by the causes with which we are familiar.

It’s worth recalling that the placebo effect is one of the best attested effects in medicine. We start to get over an illness just because we sense we will.

But this is precisely where the naturalist and the non-naturalist (for example, the informational realist) part company. The naturalist holds as an axiom that no event can occur that is not accounted for by the blind laws of nature. Thus, there is no "outside" the play, no playwright, and no audience. The play accidentally wrote itself.

The informational realist doubts that account, and looks for more information.

Nature will not speak up to tell us which account is true. We must look to evidence interpreted by intelligence for that. If there are different layers of reality, we cannot rule out in principle events governed by a higher order, in the same way that a play cannot rule out — in principle — an interruption where the playwright walks on stage.

Rational explanations do exclude certain types of causes, of course. For example causes for which there is no evidence, causes unrelated to the event, and those for which cultural factors are a sufficient explanation. As a child, I heard the tale of a man who was terrified of seeing his neighbor’s black cat on Friday the 13th — a double whammy of bad luck in his view. So he decided to stay in bed smoking, as was his custom. The coroner’s jury later reported that he had died of smoke inhalation after he dozed and the bedclothes caught fire. This story was told to children to make the point that evidence-based causes should be preferred to non-evidence-based ones. But not that metaphysical naturalist causes are the only possible ones.

The metaphysical naturalist by definition cannot accept that religion could be the result of revelation. His position is not strictly related to evidence. There is plenty of evidence that suggests revelation. One thinks of G�bekli Tepe (pictured above) for example. Why would all those people do all that work for thousands of years, if not inspired by some sense of a higher order of things?

But naturalism cannot in principle accommodate such an idea. So when we look at the literature on the evolution of religion, we see only three perspectives that can be accepted:

First, religion could be a useful illusion. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt speculates that "there was a long period in human evolution during which it was adaptive to lose the self and merge with others. It wasn’t adaptive for individuals to do so, but it was adaptive for groups."

This must have been a period when human nature was very different from what it is today, as we so rarely see this quality now even in highly religious groups. For that matter, it is far from clear that G�bekli Tepe was "adaptive" for the group that accomplished it. Organized crime might have been far more "adaptive." But the group was clearly pursuing something intangible. And that is characteristic of religion, as understood today.

On the other hand, religion could be a useless byproduct, a parasite on useful traits. Ilkke Pyysiainen and Marc Hauser published a paper in 2009 arguing that view:

Considerable debate has surrounded the question of the origins and evolution of religion. One proposal views religion as an adaptation for cooperation, whereas an alternative proposal views religion as a by-product of evolved, non-religious, cognitive functions. We critically evaluate each approach, explore the link between religion and morality in particular, and argue that recent empirical work in moral psychology provides stronger support for the by-product approach. Specifically, despite differences in religious background, individuals show no difference in the pattern of their moral judgments for unfamiliar moral scenarios. These findings suggest that religion evolved from pre-existing cognitive functions, but that it may then have been subject to selection, creating an adaptively designed system for solving the problem of cooperation.

In a metaphysical naturalist system, religion cannot be an adaptation to a reality beyond the everyday. Marc Hauser’s own career may or may not be relevant in the context.

But, some theorists argue, religion is actually a bad adaptation. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne attributes Americans’ doubt about Darwinian evolution theories to religious faith, which, he claims, correlates highly with social dysfunction. He goes on to claim that the United States is "one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries." That’s a tough contest to judge, considering the cutbacks riots and secularist-Islamist clashes that are increasingly common in secular post-modern Europe. And it is, in any event, difficult to discuss social dysfunction if societies do not even share basic values. 

These theories about religion (useful, useless, harmful) have two things in common: First, they typically spill forth with no real engagement with religion. For example, one recent study claimed that believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues. That would be news to the many people whose religion urges them to do things they quite sincerely don’t want to do (fast) or give up things they really like (smoking). Another claimed that people reject evolution (Darwinism) and support ID because they are afraid to die.

If one’s research is in a hole that deep, why not stop digging? Well, in the case of evolutionary naturalists, it’s because the hole is the enterprise. They just didn’t think it would go down so far as to bury them too.

Now, all this said, some religions — particularly the oldest ones we know of — might be worth examining along these evolutionary lines (useful, neutral, or harmful adaptation). The question takes us into an antique, largely vanished world where people tried to guess what might placate the moody gods and ancestors. Will that world vindicate naturalist views of religion?

Image: G�bekli Tepe, by Teomancimit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Here is the "Science Fictions" series (the human mind) to date at your fingertips.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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