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Evolution and Religion


Explanations > Evolution > Evolution and Religion

The need to explain | Attribution of events | Explanation of feelings | Social conformance | Monotheistic drift | So What?


There are religions around the world, in almost all groups and civilizations. A common factor amongst these is the identification of supernatural beings and intentional forces outside the individual person.

Religions are different enough to challenge the notion of discovering a 'one true way' (although many would claim this), so what is it all about? A way of viewing this is through the lens of evolutionary forces.

The need for meaning

We all have a natural need to understand and hence explain and give meaning to what happens around us. If we can understand what causes what, then we can predict the future and hence control the world to our advantage, enabling not only basic needs such as survival and procreation, but also satisfying higher needs such as for social esteem and self-actualization.

This need for meaning and explanation is hence a significant driver. It also has benefit socially, where a rational person who can explain their actions and sensibly describe external events can gain acceptance and status. If we know that everyone around us is reasonable, then we can trust their judgement and decisions.

Attribution of events

Living in primitive conditions, natural events such as floods, fire, earthquakes and so on can be scary. If we can attribute these to intelligent beings of some kind, then we can cling to beliefs that the events may be mitigated by praying and making offerings to the gods in question.

Regressive comfort

When we were young, we could gain comfort from apparently all-powerful parents who would nurture us and sooth away our pains. One of the frightening things about growing up is when we realize that our parents are neither perfect nor omnipotent, and that we are going to have to look after ourselves. Having an all-powerful deity who we believe will look after us can be a very comforting parental replacement (this can be seen in language such as 'our father').

Comfort can also be gained by attributing all kinds of external events as being due to 'the will of God'. This lets the person absolve themself from all responsibility, passing the blame upwards and avoiding having to do anything about it all.

An example of how religion offers comfort can be seen in the use of icons and symbols, and how people make signs or touch relics as a way of gaining solace and relief from the pains of their world.

Religion provides particular comfort in the face of death, both in soothing the bereaved and in giving us hope for an after-life of some kind (although what we are promised does change somewhat with each religious variant).

Explanation of feelings

We need to explain how we feel, when we are down and when we are happy, all of which may be attributed as appropriate to religious reason. In particular when we feel elated and with a sense of an extended identity, religion provides an explanation of connection with the deity. This nirvana can become a consuming goal, as once felt it may be sought forever after. People who have never had this religious experience may also seek it and actions such as fasting and meditation may hasten this joyful state.

Religion can also be used to explain hallucinations, and visions of religious figures may be taken as a sign of holiness that can lead to places of pilgrimage being created. Near-death experiences with narrowing of vision and seeing a light have scientific explanations, but for those who experience them, this can be strongly confirming of a life beyond.

Social conformance

When living in a tribe, society or other social group, it is important that we agree on important things with others in the group, in particular around the basic mental structures such as values and beliefs. Simple agreement on a range of subjects increases trust and social cohesion.

Religion can hence become a means of social control. When conforming to religious rules is all-important and the rules are defined by interpreters such as priests, then this gives the priesthood strong social control. This can lead to a policed order, although the potential for power corrupting always remains.

Monotheistic drift

Gods evolve as well as people. Religions started with animism, the attribution of spirituality to all things, and built through the polytheism of many gods to, in many cases, one main god.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, for example, there were independent gods for many different things, which made praying and attributing a rather complex affair. Over time, the gods were seen as having a clear hierarchy, mirroring the natural human society, with more powerful gods and less important ones, and with one main god in charge. The powerful gods then were gradually given the interests and powers of the lesser gods, who could then be quietly forgotten. And eventually this moving of focus to the more powerful gods led to the emergence of a single omnipotent god. After all, if a god is all-powerful, it makes sense that you only need one.

Interestingly, the need for lesser gods has to some extent returned, with saints having an interest in very specific topics. This is helpful if a person does not want to trouble the all-powerful god with their minor troubles. A saint, on the other hand, was once a person and has a particular interest that aligns with the individual's needs.

Historically, this merging of the gods was not a simple process and happened in different ways in different times and places, yet it does seem an inevitable and rational process.

So what?

Religion is a highly personal thing, so do be careful about any discussions around it. If you are religious yourself then do feel free to peaceably disagree. The view here is from the author, is based on various writings and is of course itself a set of beliefs.

Having said this, you may find this useful in understanding beliefs and how they drift in logical and socially advantageous directions. People need to believe, so let them do so and maybe you can find appropriate alignment with this.

See also

Beliefs, The Need for Meaning, Why science and religion are the same, Seven Rules of Religion


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