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Did Religion Evolve, or Was It Designed, to Foster Cooperation?

Photo: Parthenon, by George E. Koronaios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: In a series, Casey Luskin is reviewing Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is Part 3. Look here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. The full review can be found here.

In my previous post reviewing historian Yuval Noah Harari’s 2015 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I ended by noting his staunchly materialistic outlook — specifically where he wrote, “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (p. 28) This is not just a piece of inconsequential trivia about his worldview — it forms the basis of many other crucial claims in the book.

Key Excerpts from the Book 

For example, Harari assumes that religion evolved by natural processes and in no way reflects some kind of design or revelation from a God. In fact, one of his central arguments is that religion evolved when humanity produced “myths” which fostered group cooperation and survival. Harari spends a lot of time developing this argument. Here are some key excerpts from the book:

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. … 

[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. … 

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. … 

Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths. … 

Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.

Sapiens, pp. 24, 25, 27, 102, 103

Thus if Harari is correct, then religion was not designed, but is a behavior which evolved naturally because it fostered shared “myths” which allowed societies to better cooperate, increasing their chances of survival. This view grows out of his “no gods in the universe” perspective because it implies that religion was not revealed to humanity, but rather evolved.

“Myths” Foster Survival

Harari is undoubtedly correct that shared beliefs — or “myths,” as he pejoratively calls them — facilitate group cooperation, and this fosters survival. But this is an observation about shared beliefs, myths, and religion, not an explanation for them. And it is quite easy for a design-based model to account for these observations in a manner that requires no unguided evolution. Here’s what it might look like:

Perhaps shared “myths” that foster friendship, fellowship, and cooperation among human beings were not the result of random evolution or “pure chance” (as Harari describes our cognitive evolution), but rather reflect the intended state of human society as it was designed by a benevolent creator. If this is the case, then “large-scale human cooperation,” as Harari puts it, might be the intentional result of large-scale shared religious beliefs in a society — a useful emergent property that was intended by a designer for a society that doesn’t lose its religious cohesion. In other words, these benefits may be viewed not as the accidental byproduct of evolution but as intended for a society that pursues shared spirituality. 

Failing to Account for the Complexity of Religion

Harari is by no means the first to propose cooperation and group selection as an explanation for the origin of religion. But do these evolutionary accounts really account for the phenomenon? Not so much. 

Religion is much more than group cooperation. For many religions it’s all about prayer, sacrifice, and total personal devotion to a deity. How do you explain that in evolutionary terms? How many followers of a religion have died — i.e., became evolutionary dead ends — for their beliefs? Which “selfish genes” drive young males into monasteries to avoid sexual relationships and pray? How does it help society put food on the table if your religion demands sacrificing large numbers of field animals to a deity? What about requiring that the rich and the poor donate wealth to build temples rather than grain houses — does that foster the growth of large societies? And what about that commandment about taking a weekly day off, with no fire or work, to worship God? That was never very good for cooperation and productivity. How about the religious ascetic who taught his followers to sell their possessions, give to the poor, and then chose to die at the hands of his worst enemies, believing that his own death would save them? How did he get such a big following? 

I’m asking these questions in evolutionary terms: how do these behaviors help believers survive and reproduce? Sure you can find tangential benefits that are unexpected byproducts, but generally speaking, for the evolutionist these things are difficult to explain. That is why Harari’s repeated assurances about how religion exists to build group cohesion is simplistic and woefully insufficient to account for many of the most common characteristics of religion.

Next, “Reviewing Sapiens: Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards