Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Is Religion in our DNA?

Just something I've thought about before. Assuming, of course, that the universe works perfectly well without a Creator (as I do), a question springs to mind: is the belief in some almighty diety, no matter what diety is it, somehow written into our DNA? Did humanity go through an evolutionary bottleneck that conferred an advantage on those with faith? Certainly, shared belief would help a community stick together and grow, but is it really a necessity for reproductive success? Every other critter on the planet seems to get along just fine without making sacrifices or chewing on stale crackers. There are no Jewish meerkats (not to single out the Jews, that's just a funny phrase). So what is it about humans that makes them, so often, default to religion? It's certainly not utilitarian. If anything, it gets in the way of natural processes.

But it's hard to deny that faith is a gigantic factor in what makes us human. Many humans may not be religious, but will awknowledge a "higher power," abstract though that term may be. But why? Why is the the natural world not enough? At what point did mankind begin shouting at the sky, and why? What advantage does (or did) it confer?


Anonymous said...

"chewing on stale crackers"

Sacrelige! You desperately need spiritral help. May you find God, and find comfort in his Almighty Son, who died for your sins.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

A number of anthropologists, philosophers, etc., that religion is a by-product of a number of different mental "modules" operating for their own selective advantage (or themselves an unselected by-product of some other adaptation). These include:

* Our tendency to match patterns, even if they are not really there

--Related to this, the rapidity with which superstitious behavior appears, even in non-humans (google "superstitious pigeon Skinner" for more details...)

* Our tendency to ascribe agency as the cause of events, even if there is no apparent intelligent agent behind the event (e.g., blaming a door for "hitting" you)

* The important role that ritual has in uniting members of a community (look at any football game, club meeting, etc.)

* The important role that shared patterns of identity (symbols, codes, etc.) have in binding together communities against "others"

And so forth.

Sciroccopteryx said...

Well, yes. If they're going around burning everyone who doesn't apply to the faith, your genes are very useful if they enhance your faith in some way. Most of the various faiths arose in discreet geographical areas, didn't they?

@ R. Holtz - indeed! In falcon-training, there's a condition called "superstition" wherein the bird recognizes the wrong stimulus, ie if you train them on an orange glove, they will not respond to a black glove, which has been compared to an athlete's "lucky socks".

Stevo Darkly said...

"Did humanity go through an evolutionary bottleneck that conferred an advantage on those with faith?"

Hey, what makes you think we aren't still in that bottleneck? :)

Seriously: I think that in addition, religion provides a great deal of help in coping with anxiety that a clear-thinking, free-thinking viewpoint unencumbered by supernatural beliefs does not provide -- which may explain surveys in which religious people appear to be both happier and healthier than the nonreligious.

This may be linked to ideas such as:

* There is a Being out there that is looking out for you and ultimately wants what's best for you, even if at the moment it doesn't seem like it.

* Ultimately suffering has some kind of purpose in some kind of cosmic plan, and/or is compensated for in an afterlife in which "all accounts are made right."

* Compared to an eternal afterlife, suffering and problems during life isn't that big a deal.

* This includes injustices and slights we suffer that might cause us to fret, but again, aren't that big a deal in the scheme of things, plus they'll be compensated for in an afterlife.

* So, hell, stop stressing so much already.

* At the same time, during life on Earth we get heavenly "credit" for easing the sufferings of others and being nice to them, which helps counteract any nihilistic tendencies that a focus on an afterlife might have.

* Plus, of course, shared religious beliefs can also be the basis of a social network that the religious can rely on for social and psychological support.

Disclaimer: I have religious beliefs myself (although I try not to be an asshole about it, and I don't believe in evangelizing as most people think of it). However, this doesn't keep me from being interested in the sociology of religion and whatever effects that can be studied scientifically, nor from considering that religion might have utility regardless of whether its beliefs are true. (Although, alas for the church-free, the beliefs apparently have to precede most of the benefits. That is, deciding to abandon atheism or agnosticism and join a religion solely to enjoy the stress-coping side-effects probably wouldn't work.)

Raymond said...

Ah hell,

Religion is crap; "God" eh, whatever.

The overwhelming vast majority of humans feel that "What the frack?!?!?" including you.

That's "God". We all get that feeling. And it is _OKAY_!!!!

The only thing as a non-observant
red-letter "christian" That I
accept within the "Babbal"
or the books of the Bhuddah,
Mhommadad(PBOH) or the Baghavad
Gita is Saul of Tarsus'
admononition, "By my works,
ye shall know me"

That phrase is _everything_ to
to you. "God" AFAIK doesn't give
a damn if you are an "Athiest"
or an "Agonosist" or simply

Any shit-fer-brains "Xianbot" or
"Izlamobot" simply needs to be
told to figure out the "By my
works" phrase. It's in both
of the Books. Everyone else
might try to weasel out of it
but it is THERE. The Psychopaths
that rule the world overlooked
this phrase.

This phrase encompasses all the
world and universe. And if any
religobots says otherwise, you are
completely right in calling them
"heretics" and devil-worshipers".


Stevo Darkly said...

Raymond -

So what you are saying is that if a religious person acts immorally, that behavior could be seen as reflecting unfavorably upon God -- or, to be more precise, upon that person's conception of the God that he/she supposedly obeys and venerates.

And that person should be ashamed.

Or at least re-evaluate his/conception of what God is and what God wants people to do.

I'll buy that.

Stevo Darkly said...

... that last "his/" was supposed to be "his/her."

Sweetreasondammit! The darn "preview" function fails me again!