Sunday, September 5, 2010

Are Humans Evolved to Be Religious?

I see several things wrong with this question.  First, to say that we’re hard wired to be religious is a lot like saying that we’re hard wired for video games, porn or to really like Rocky Road ice cream.  Yes, there are reasons that we like those things, but we couldn’t have evolved for them.  They’re far, far too recent.

Secondly, which religion are we referring to?  It’s axiomatic that there are quite a diversity of religious ideologies - one god, two gods, no god, four, one after life, many afterlives, laws, prayers, meditations and on and on.  That makes it difficult to say that we as a whole have evolved for a particular religion.

With that being said, I do think that there are psychological proclivities that we can look to explain the reason why a robust majority of the world is profoundly religious.  I’ll just touch on a couple that stick out to me.

1. Trust

It’s been quite selectively advantageous for our ancestors to trust each other--knowing which snake not to pick up, which leaves are medicinal/poisonous, how to make a stone tool, learning vocabulary/syntax, how game are migrating, where a watering hole is and so on and so forth.  The ones that didn’t believe their elders went the way of the dodo.  Those that unquestioningly accepted what they were told even if they didn’t understand it were more likely to survive.  Stated in the positive is that we’re communal thinkers.  We think best together.  There are, however, times when this backfires.

2. Creative vs. Logical

As a species, in my opinion, it has been more advantageous to be a creative story teller, a shaman, a mythologizer than it has been to be a critical thinker, a questioner, a logician or a mathematician.  Thus, why we fabricate and then believe the things we do.

3. Animate thinking

If you hear a bump in the night, is it better to assume that it is a threatening beast or a harmless branch falling?  It’s been selected for to err in the direction of being overly precautious, of animating the inanimate.  

This is why we name hurricanes.  It literally saves.  People can’t think well about wind, storm surges and flash floods, but they can think about ‘Andrew’, ‘Katrina’ and ‘Eduardo’.

Advanced social situations, like those requiring conversation skills, have been highly selected for.  Having a good conversation is actually much more complicated than it may seem on the surface.  We’ve had to make major cognitive advances in order to navigate even the simplest conversation.  ‘Theory of Mind’ in psychology refers to our ability to understand other human’s behavior as a product of a conscious mind like our own.  By contrasting ourselves with other species we can see this is no small feat.  There are many, many species that don’t ‘know’ that others of their species have thoughts, emotions, fears, joys, etc or even recognise themselves in the mirror (thereby showing they can tell a ‘real’ being from a fake one).  They can only tell that when one thing happens a being may do another thing in response--cause and effect, a machine’s cogs turning.  Humans, in contrast, have a super charged brain engine that is incredibly adept at simulating other’s minds and their thoughts and emotions to anticipate how they will react.  Furthermore, we take this cognitive advance one step further with ‘bicameralism’, or our ability to simulate conversations by playing simultaneously the speaker and the reactor.  Summary, we are really skilled at giving agency to things that have no mind.  Couple those together and it’s not too hard to see how we can make spirits out of anything.  That is also why we ‘punish’ the tv for not working by hitting it, like it’s volitionally rebelling.  We give it a ‘mind’ when it has none.
Does this negate the truthfulness of any religious doctrine?  Not in any way.  That’s a completely different debate.


  1. well i kinda thought this was a dumb question but u gave some eye opening answeres...

  2. I can't really take credit, though--it's evolutionary psychology! It has been incredibly eye opening for me, too!

    Thanks so much for commenting!!


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