How Will Religion Evolve?

Religion is the perfect tool
To motivate the common fool;
So long as leaders crave its power,
The church delays its final hour.

Religion’s purpose is control
(And not the saving of the soul);
No holy mind; no will divine,
But rather, keeping folks in line.

Religion, having once evolved,
Is just one way this problem’s solved.
But having once found this solution,
It may not die through evolution.

It likely won’t, to be succinct,
Just fade away and go extinct.
They’ll be here till the world grows old:
Religion… and the common cold.

How Will Religion Evolve?” asks the New York Times’ TierneyLab Blog. The occasion is the publication of Nicholas Wade’s “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures”. Of course, there have been many treatments of the evolution of religion, whether as an adaptive behavior adding to the reproductive fitness of human beings, as the byproduct of other adaptive mechanisms, as a self-replicating meme evolving independently of ourselves… or as a true part of our environment to which we respond. The question the TierneyLab Blog raises is “what will religion evolve into?”, which is a decent question to ask.

I figure (and I may be wrong–I just slapped this together between grading papers) that whatever religion might evolve into, evolution works with what it is given (from the past genetics and the present environment), so there are some limitations on what religion might evolve into. Just as humans are constrained by our tetrapod lineage and will never evolve supernumerary angel wings (batlike wings are unlikely, of course, but far more possible), the religous lineage also imposes constraints. We cannot roll evolution backwards, only forwards, so we must build on what religion is, not on what it could have been.

What religion is, is a way of controlling people. And a very successful one. Anything that can, without too much strain, lay claim to both the Sistine Chapel and the Jonestown Suicides, to the Parthenon and to the Crusades, to Sarah Palin and to Torquemada, has got to be good at controlling people. Hey, if you want to take credit for controlling in a good way, you gotta take the fall for controlling in a bad way. Evolution does not care; religion, as an evolving creature or behavior, does not care. It just (very successfully) controls.

Religion does what it does (control) very well. So does the common cold. Both “religion” and “the cold” are oversimplifications, one name for myriad creatures, but sharing a fuzzy but functional role. And while I may well wish the world were rid of both of them… like I said, evolution does not care.

PS. If any of you got an extra copy of the bananaman Origin of Species, I want one! Might even be persuaded to trade a copy of my silly book for it… (so long as no profit goes to Ray of Darkness)…


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