Friday, March 14, 2014

The Evolutionary Driver for Religion

The evolutionary driver for religion: using absurdity to create conformity and hierarchy, and thereby alliances and collaboration…

How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright

Humans evolved in small groups—twenty, forty, sixty people—from which emigration was often not a viable option. Survival depended on social support: sharing food, sticking together during fights, and so on. To alienate your peers by stubbornly contesting their heartfelt beliefs would have lowered your chances of genetic proliferation.

Maybe that explains why you don’t have to lock somebody in a closet to get a bit of the Stockholm syndrome. Religious cults just offer aimless teenagers a free bus ride to a free meal, and after the recruits have been surrounded by believers for a few days, they tend to warm up to the beliefs. And there doesn’t have to be some powerful authority figure pushing the beliefs. In one famous social psychology experiment, subjects opined that two lines of manifestly different lengths were the same length, once a few of their “peers” (who were in fact confederates) voiced that opinion.

Given this conformist bias in human nature, it’s not surprising that people born into “primitive” religions—or any other religions—accept an elaborate belief system that outside observers find highly dubious. But the question remains: How did the elaborate belief system ever come to exist? Granted that people are inclined to accept their community’s official edifice of belief and ritual (especially if no alternatives are on offer). But how did the edifice come to exist in the first place? How did religion get built from the ground up?

It makes sense that human brains would naturally seize on strange, surprising things, since the predictable things have already been absorbed into the expectations that guide them through the world; news of the strange and surprising may signal that some amendment of our expectations is warranted. But one property of strange, surprising claims is that they’re often untrue. So if they get preferred access to our brains, that gives falsehood a kind of advantage—if a fleeting advantage—over truth.

Of course, in the long run, the truth often does get its boots on, and people often welcome it upon its arrival. Indeed, if the attraction to surprising news weren’t balanced by an attraction to claims that survive subsequent scrutiny, the average human ancestor wouldn’t have lived long enough to become a human ancestor.

Religion arose out of a hodgepodge of genetically based mental mechanisms designed by natural selection for thoroughly mundane purposes.


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