As with other features in evolution, there are two possible ways that evolution can give rise to some phenomenon. One is that it is an adaptation that came about because it was directly advantageous in itself at some point in time. The other is that it is an accidental by-product of natural selection for some other trait that was advantageous. These two pathways are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that religion developed along both lines.
Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is largely the product of the second process. He thinks that asking what the survival value is for religion is the wrong question because it likely has none. His hypothesis is that belief in god and the afterlife is a by-product of a genetic pre-disposition to believe one’s parents. It is not hard to see why having the genes that tend to predispose one to obey one’s parents has a selective advantage over those that are either neutral or advocate disobeying them. Human infants in particular are very vulnerable and depend on the adults around them to enable them to grow to adulthood. Not listening to them could be disastrous, causing them to do life-threatening acts. But at the same time they lack the capacity to discriminate between the information fed to them. So young children believe both the useful and the useless, those supported by evidence and those that are simply unverifiable folklore, and over time the latter can morph into religious rituals and belief. As Dawkins says:
On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs will evolve over generations, either by random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common parent given sufficient time in geographical separation. The same is true of traditional beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations, initially because of the programmability of the child brain.
This theory would explain why most children adopt the beliefs of their parents and dismiss as absurd and unbelievable other religions, even though they both have that same lack of any evidentiary support. Since children tend to be surrounded by similar believers, they hold on to those beliefs into adulthood. And once these beliefs are firmly entrenched, people are reluctant to let go of them. This is why now, despite their obvious disadvantages such as wasted time and effort and resources propitiating an imaginary figure, religion can still endure.
But this only explains why children are willing to believe their parents. But why did their parents develop their beliefs in the first place? In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, and the resolution in likely the same, that they both co-evolved.
As I said in a previous post, there is evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to believe in the magical. It is similar to the way that our brains are evolved for language. Language has many commonalities with religion. It is ubiquitous and universal. While there is a huge variety in the number of languages around the globe, at least superficially, at the same time, the deep grammatical structures of languages reveal common structures, which has led to the idea that our brains are hardwired for language and that the process of learning a particular language involves superimposing the local vocabulary and other superficial features onto a universal and common foundation. In other words, what a child learns from the speech of others are cues that throw certain switches in the pre-existing brain’s circuitry that corresponds to the local language structure.
It is known, for example, that if you put children together who do not speak a common language, or speak only pidgin versions of a language or, in the case of deaf children, do not speak at all, they will together spontaneously develop a creole language that has many of the grammatical features of ordinary language, suggesting that the ability for language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 24)
It is suggested that religion is like that. Due to evolution, we all have hardwired in our brains the propensity to see patterns that may not be there and to assign supernatural agency to natural events. What the many varieties of religions do is build upon this common base to create local religions, just the way local languages emerged around the globe while having a universal grammatical structure.
The suggestion has been made (but would be impossible to test) that if you put children who have no prior religious beliefs together for an extended period of time, they would spontaneously develop some form of religious belief that would have generic features that correspond to the kinds of religions that we see around us, because their brains have a similar predisposition to do so. If true, this would suggest that religion will always be with us, a sad future to contemplate.
But I am not so sure that this particular parallelism holds because there are key differences between language and religion. Language provides unquestionable benefits for any group of people and is always advantageous. While religion may have provided benefits in primitive societies, nowadays children are able to obtain scientific explanations for puzzling phenomena that were not available for their ancient ancestors, and so are less likely to build elaborate god-based theories. Few parents nowadays are likely to tell their children that thunder is a sign of god’s anger, even if they do not understand the science of it. Somewhat more people are likely to see god’s hand in major natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and in disease epidemics but these will also surely decline. As the number of things that seem inexplicable shrink, the switches in the brain that trigger belief in the supernatural are less likely to be tripped.
At least, I hope so.
Next: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities
POST SCRIPT: Global warming or biblical Armageddon?
The Onion News Network reports that Kansas has decided that in the interests of fairness, both theories concerning the end of the world should be taught to school children.