Evolutionary Theory examines Religion

There’s an interesting article in The Economist this week.  It’s about a new EU project to study religion using science.  But it spends most of it’s time discussing a couple of disparate studies that have already been conducted.  I feel they are trying to present 2 early conclusions:

  1. Religion is an evolutionary tool, like morality, to promote better groups.  Groups are important because in an extremely dangerous and competitive environment, aka a war, the better group will win.
  2. The converse is also true.  Because religion preferences group selection over individual selection, it causes religious people to make bad individual decisions when they are not in an extremely dangerous environment, aka a war.

Pretty strong stuff!  The implication here seems dangerous:  Religious people are evolutionary encouraged to create dangerous conflicts.  Yikes.  If the logic and science holds, that would put all religion in the same category as weapons dealers, terrorists, extremists, and some bad political company.

I see one problem though.  Morality does seem like the same evolutionary pressure.  Morality binds society together much in the same way, with laws, police, and social guidelines.  But most of us feel that losing these things would lead to total anarchy, a lower quality of life, and little chance of survival.  Oops!  It doesn’t seem like we have the complete story.  Here’s one piece I think is missing:  Historically, religiousness tends to diminish over the long term without these dangerous environments.  Morality seems to increase.


One thought on “Evolutionary Theory examines Religion

  1. Hmmm…

    The whole group versus individual selection mechanic is predicated upon Darwinian assumptions which need not hold in practice. I question the notion of “group selection” as something reliable enough to be re-applied in this way – it’s presuming theory can be put in front of observation. (Because in observation, these group dynamics are far more complicated than a simplistic rendering will hold).

    Case in point would be Hinduism, which consists of so diverse a set of religious beliefs that they didn’t even have a collective name until the British invaded India. Yet these many different groups coexisted peacefully, for the most part (although conflict with Islam did occur during certain points of history).

    I would say that both the Dharmic religions and the Abrahamic religions teach kinship beyond group borders (epitomised by Jesus’ teachings in Christianity, and Buddhist teachings), so there is a contravailing force to any group tendencies which might arise – and which, I might add, are far stronger in people’s allegiance to geographical groups (nations, races) than religions for the most part. (There are, of course, exceptions).

    I agree with your observation here that the studies are rushing to premature opinions, and would go further by suggesting they are letting their assumptions lead their conclusions – always risky in science.

    Best wishes!

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