The Evolution of Religion

26 10 2006

Richard Dawkins discusses applying Darwinism to religion.  He says that religion is not a product of natural selection but a by-product.  He gives the example of a moth who flies into the candle flame and burns to a crisp.  We could ask, ‘why did the moth evolve to commit suicide?  What’s the benefit?’  A closer look at the situation reveals that the moth did not evolve to commit suicide.  The countless moth deaths are a by-product of an evolved trait.  Moths use light from stars and the moon to navigate at night.  If they keep the light from the moon at a 30 degree angle in their eye, they will fly straight.  A candle on the other hand (because of its proximity) forces them into a spiral that inevitably ends in their premature demise.

In this way, Dawkins asserts that religion is not the result of a process of natural selection, but a side effect (those are my words, not his).  He suggests that natural selection has made it so that young children take their elders seriously.  This is because a lot of what humans do is build on the experiences of those that came before us.  As a child you were probably told the iron was hot – and so you didn’t touch it.  You may also have been told that ‘god loves you’.  Since the child brain is equipped so that it learns things from its parents (like not to touch the iron) it is unable to distinguish between useful advice and bullshit.  Hence, religion is a by-product of our intuitive sense to listen to our parents.

 Dawkins sees this as one of many possible explanations for his ‘religion as by-product theory’.  The theory is astounding, the explanation is fascinating. 

But why, you ask, must religion be a by-product?  Why can’t it be a product?  Simply enough, biologically speaking, it has no use.  In fact it is even detrimental at times.  Think of all the time you waste performing ceremonies – valuable time you might use to gather food.  Not to mention martyrs. 

Additionally, Paul Bloom suggests that, “we are innately predisposed to be creationists.”  A child’s mind doesn’t grasp the big picture (a skill which results from intellectual and scientific thinking).  A child assigns a purpose to everything, for example  ‘clouds are for raining’ and ‘pointy rocks are so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’.  This is called teleology.  One can easily see that someone who suffers from teleology would be easily disposed to religion. 

We are prone to take what is called the intentional stance.  This is something that has arisen because it has the ability to save our lives.  It’s a shortcut to assessing something’s danger.  Instead of looking at a tiger and analyzing what it is capable of doing with its sharp claws and teeth and then deciding on an appropriate course of action, we look at the intention of the tiger.  Its intention is to eat us, so we flee immediately, without having to analyze all the parts individually.  (Dawkins goes through the other orders of stances, physical stance and design stance)

Because we are predisposed to assign intention to objects, we also sometimes find it hard to not look for agents behind things.  An icicle falls from the eve of a house and hits you on the head.  Probably your first instinct is to get mad at the icicle.  The icicle wasn’t acting intentionally, and you know that, but it doesn’t stop you from placing blame.   

These are sort of bastardized, lazy, half-assed explanations of Dawkins’ eloquent text.  But here’s my point –

When speaking of religion, not any specific religion, but religion as a concept – theists like to point out that every society has made a religion, so that it must be something that we need, it must fill some hole in our culture. 

But when you consider the evolutionary forces at work – it is easy to see that perhaps religion is nothing but a by-product of things that have helped us survive as a species.  There is no spiritual hole that we need to find a plug to.  All we are is victims of our own evolutionary waste.

When one understands that religion is not divine in origin, but can be explained using the same theory that explains why we have opposable thumbs – it is far easier to see just how ridiculous individual religions are.

In any case, read the book, it’s better at this than me.

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6 responses

26 10 2006
Joseph Marchante

Religion arises out of man’s desire to know where he comes from and to find meaning in this universe. It is as simple as that. Regardless of whether it is a product or a byproduct of evolutionary forces, no one can prove the veracity or falsehood of certain religious beliefs such as the existence of a deity or of life after death. Thus, we have a stalemate. Atheists believe one thing. Religious people believe another. I think both sides are naive. The faithful fail to see the many inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright fantasies in their holy books. The atheists are arrogant, assuming they can tell what exists or does not exist just by looking from this small window in the house we call Earth. Visit http://www.ercian.org and read “Ercian Testament – Parts II and III” so that you have a good idea why I feel Dawkins is mistaken.

27 10 2006
Mitchell

I think you’re missing the point. You said, “Religion arises out of man’s desire to know where he comes from and to find meaning in this universe.” The point is that no, it doesn’t – it arises out of these evolutionary processes.
I find it frustrating when people offer ideas like that and offer no explanation or justification for their argument. You saying it is that simple doesn’t make it so – it only means it is that simple in your mind (which as I’ve already pointed out, hasn’t yet grasped the concept of Dawkins’ argument).

As to your next point, that we have a stalemate between atheists and theists – I agree with Dawkins who brings up the example of the teapot. I can tell you that there is a teapot orbiting around the sun. Because of its size, you can not see it with any instruments we have available and therefore can not disprove its existence. The idea that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun however is ridiculous. So even though you can’t say with 100% certainty that the teapot doesn’t exist, I still bet you’re a ‘teapot atheist’.

You also said, “the atheists are arrogant, assuming they can tell what exists or does not exist just by looking from this small window in the house we call Earth.” Knowledge builds on knowledge, and we can know nothing if we start from a state of complete ignorance – so yes, we start on earth . . .

As for your link to ercian.org – here’s a little snippet from the main page so readers can understand a little bit about it:

If the Chart of Six reveals “information” encoded in the English alphabet, what would happen if we apply the increments-by-six formula to other languages? Could they serve a similar purpose? Because the entry “English” is 444 in the Chart, and since English was “the language of discovery,” I believe it to be the “chosen” language for Chart purposes. However, one would have to analyze the result of Chart work in other languages to confirm that belief.

I would appreciate in the future if you would give more of an explanation as to why information on a page is valuable – or guide us to a specific idea. Simply submitting a link to a page of some numerological cult is not very effective as far as proving your points.
Thanks for reading!
-Mitchell

30 10 2006
Kate

I guess my question is, so what. Love is a classic example of something that we have ritualized and celebrated and is almost certainly a byproduct of evolution. If people love each other then they are more likely to nurture and support each other, and therefore make it more likely that offspring survive and reproduce.

And there are many people who take a very practical approach to love; they view dating as simply a scientific process of selecting a suitable mate. But I think that those people are missing out on an opportunity to experience more. I believe in love. I believe in displays of affection. I believe in marriage as more than a legal or social contract. There is something mystical in it, and by believing that I think that I get something more out of it. Maybe I am wasting time, money, and brain cells by worrying about being and staying in love, by I like it.

I have no idea if there is really a God or if there is really a teapot orbiting earth. But if by believing in those things I gain something valuable for my life, then what is the harm? I take a leap of faith and I think that by following a set of rules and beliefs, even if I can’t prove their foundation, give me some additional structure and meaning to my life. I don’t think it is simple at all, and I think that everyone should feel comfortable to question and explore their beliefs.

You think that what I believe in is highly unlikely. But that’s OK. Unlikely things happen all the time.

And now that I know about that teapot, I think we should start launching teabags into space.

30 10 2006
Mitchell

I guess my question is, so what[?]

Because by removing divinity and mysticism out of religion, there is no religion. People often cite man’s quality to ‘find god’ (every civilization has created them etc. etc.) but if one understands this not as a connection with divinity, but as the result of a biological process that in essence almost forces our minds to create gods – how can one insist that they believe in an actual supernatural being?

There is something mystical in it, and by believing that I think that I get something more out of it.

See, that’s the very point. There isn’t ‘something mystical’ in it. There is some part of your brain that has been formed to think that there is (evolutionary junk). Perhaps it is like the placebo effect. If you want it to be true than your body might make it true. Maybe that ‘something mystical’ is a rush of endorphins. Who knows? The probability of it being something supernatural are however, not significant enough to be relevant.

I have no idea if there is really a God or if there is really a teapot orbiting earth. But if by believing in those things I gain something valuable for my life, then what is the harm?

Because belief in a god may cause you to go out and kill those who don’t believe. Because belief in such an improbable god might make you vote against allowing homosexuals to marry. Because you wouldn’t let any other incredibly improbable belief of yours influence your thought and actions so heavily as people do their religious beliefs. Because there are other ways to get whatever it is you get from religion without it. Because religious beliefs are never exclusively personal and adopting beliefs without having first rationed them out is a dangerous practice.

31 10 2006
Kate

I have often found it frustrating that religions people assume that without religion there is no morality. The response of course is that morality can come from other sources: reason and compassion being the primary ones. But here you seem to be arguing that religion necessitates a total lack of reason. I find your argument just as disturbing. Do you really believe that my faith would lead me in any of the directions you listed? Does that mean that a faith that accepts homosexuality and personal freedom, and does not approve of violence is an OK religion with you?

Are you objecting to religion itself or to the opinions held by some people of faith?

I let improbable beliefs affect my life all the time. I believe that I can make a difference in the universe and based on that belief I recycle, donate to charity, try to reduce my energy use, etc. I suspect that if I took some time to really think about it, I would find that the energy (mental and physical) I expend in “contributing” to the world probably exceeds any benefit I will derive from my efforts.

I am sure that this will undoubtedly frustrate and annoy you, but none of the evolution arguments do anything towards disproving God. One could just as easily argue that the impulses to respect parents and assign meaning are evidence of God’s desire to create belief. But it is an argument not worth having as you and I have each already reached our conclusions and thus see the evidence entirely differently.

As for your argument that I can get what I am looking for outside of religion, I disagree. Maybe your needs are being met without religion, but mine were not. Perhaps I have different needs than you do. Where else do you see groups of people working so regularly to question and explore the big questions (what is my purpose, where do I belong, how can I work to improve myself)? I have been in therapy, I have been in book groups, I have taken yoga, I have volunteered with service organizations, and I have not found in any of these things what I find in religion.

1 11 2006
Mitchell

I do not think that your faith will lead you in any of the negative directions I listed – however, I chalk that up to your strength and reason, not your faith. And yes, I would say that there are some faith systems that are ‘better’ than others. As with everything in life, it is not a black and white issue. There are degrees to everything. I dislike getting my head chopped off with a guillotine – but that doesn’t mean that if it had to happen I wouldn’t prefer a sharp blade to a dull one.

So am I objecting to religion itself or to the opinions held by some people of faith? Can’t I be objecting to both? I’ll admit that fundamentalist Christians provoke my ire more so than liberal Jews. Different though they are, they are the same to me in the sense that they both represent ‘religion’ (which for my purposes can be defined as a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘designer’). Some faiths make people do things that I find absolutely appalling – others just sort of make me raise my right eyebrow in an inquisitive fashion.

You’re example of improbable beliefs making you do useless things (recycling) I don’t quite understand. Just because you personally won’t reap the benefits of an action doesn’t mean it has no use. In fact, doing things to ensure the survival of future generations is not only useful but a well studied part of our genetic makeup.

To move along to the next issue, rest assured that this kind of debate does neither frustrate nor annoy me. I am frustrated and annoyed, but for different reasons all together. Most religious scientists take a similar stance to what you’re proposing. That god didn’t create the world in six days as in the genesis account, but rather just set in motion the beautiful machine of evolution. It seems to me though that not so long ago a lot of things were ascribed to god. But as science grows and we are able to explain more and more via natural processes, the pool of things ascribed to god keeps shrinking. Some day there will be nothing left for him to claim – and then what will become of him?

There is no need to believe in a divine creator. I think a lot of people think that it is the only way to explain how the universe was created (for, they argue, everything that exists must have been created). In that case, who created god? It is just as easy to presume that the universe has always existed or that there is some other explanation not yet thought of to explain it without having to create a supernatural entity with no scientific explanation, no phylogeny, unlike anything that is known to exist. Because of the reasons just explained, for me the belief in God represents a willing lapse in logical thought.

And as for your religious group filling needs that nothing else you’ve found can – that is almost a separate issue. That gets to the principles of community and the social organism. I’m not fundamentally against anyone’s right to be involved in a community that they enjoy – I am against communities that preach hatred and intolerance. Which brings us back to the first argument – that of degrees.

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