Science Questions

Does religion have an evolutionary role?

Tue, 12th Jan 2016

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Question

David Spence asked:

I would like to ask the question: Is the concept of religion part of the process and development of evolution within a species?

 

If a particular species of life perceives itself to be superior to other life forms, would that species believe it was created separately, hence the birth of religion? Whether the religion itself has no foundation of scientific truth, is faith itself more dominant due to the necessity to believe in something greater than yourself and to soften the concept of death?

Answer

Kat Arney put this question to Ginny Smith...Cottenham Church

Ginny - Itís a difficult question to answer because humans are the only species we know of that has religion.  So the question is - how, and or why, did we evolve religion?  And we donít really know, but there are two ways that it could have happened.  One is that religion evolved due to natural selection because it has a selective advantage.  Those of our ancestors who became religious did better than those who didnít and so it was selected for.  Another thing is is that it could be an evolutionary byproduct.  It may be that we evolved something that was really useful, and then religion came along for the ride as a kind of byproduct of that thing that was usefull.

Kat - I mean I think thereís an argument about it having some sort of social cohesion and a lot of religions have rules around hygiene, and eat this, donít do that. let's do this, letís go here.

Ginny - Yes.  So that's one of the ideas that, if it did have a selective advantage, that could have been one.  It seems like religions came along around the same time our ancestors were starting to live in bigger groups.  When social cohesion would have been really important.  They often involved watchful ancestor spirits - that kind of thing.  People keeping an eye on what you're doing and, if you have that ever present person keeping an eye on you, thereís this really big impetus to do the right thing, and if youíre living in a big group thatís really important.

Chris - Where do you think the observation from South Africa, last year, comes in Ginny - the Homo naledi findings where these primitive people (they may be 2 million years old), appeared to be burying their dead.  To all intents and purposes these animals had a brain the size of an orange and we know that equivalently brained animals are not known to be Einstein.  So, is it that thereís some sort of primitive thing that evolves that you want to have respect for the dead, or whatever?  David what do you think?

David - I mean religion in itself you can look at it from two perspectives.  As the lady said earlier on, as human beings started to live in bigger communities and, obviously, there had to be some rules of control, letís just say.  But I think also if we look at religion I think the concept - I mean this is maybe controversial - but once a certain intellect starts to be perceived, and the consciousness of death starts to appear, I think that religion has a role in that play as to ease the concept of death, I suppose you could say.

Ginny - Yes. That would kind of fit with the - itís a byproduct thing.  That we became more intelligent because that was useful for making tools.  We gained this ability to see cause and effect but then that meant we were looking for bigger causes and effects.  We were looking for something more and perhaps put together things that maybe didnít go together and we saw a divine power and then, as you say, once you start to understand your own mortality, itís very comforting to have an idea of an afterlife and it does seem to be something that really pervasive all across human cultures, human religions.  They all have this idea of the afterlife and what to do with your dead and I thinks thatís probably right, itís got an element involved there.

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When you were very young, whatever happened during the day, a Man With a Beard would turn up around teatime and mete out justice. "Wait 'til dad gets home" was the cry of the frustrated mother or the injured sibling. And by the age of 5 you realised that judgement and retribution followed every sin, but occasionally good deeds were rewarded at the weekend, by the MWB.

Then you ventured into the big wide world and some slimeball told you that there was a Very Big MWB in the sky who would follow your every move and condemn you to unceasing agony if you told anyone what the slimeball did to you, or if you failed to turn up every Sunday and ask for forgiveness. Or maybe he told you that the perfectly nice family next door were actually oppressing you because they ate bacon and drank beer, which was against the teaching of a MWB who died a couple of thousand years ago, so it was your bounden duty to grow a beard and kill infidels.

In evolutionary terms it means that the majority of homo is no longer sapiens, the stupid and gullible will (because they are told to) outbreed those with the wit to realise that the sole function of religion is to justify actions that would otherwise be considered evil, pointless or perverse, and there will be unending conflict between idiots who listen to Men With Beards who are not their actual fathers but like to be called Father (except by their own children, who are instructed to call them Uncle).

No other species is quite as stupid as to believe in an afterlife, fairies, original sin, the joy of suffering, or ruling deities. Fortunately for the planet, Mankind will probably disappear in a few thousand years. alancalverd, Thu, 6th Aug 2015

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