Evolution of religion balances between peace and chaos

September 30, 2009

“The firstborn child of two young parents is born prematurely. The pediatrician tells her parents that she has a 50-50 chance of surviving.

“Her father, who previously had not considered himself a religious man, looks upward with tears in his eyes and says, ‘Please God. Don’t let her die.’”

The description of one man’s instinctive turn to the divine begins Jay R. Feierman’s preface to the new book, “The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion.”

The book, which had its origins in a symposium on the biology of religious behavior at the University of Bologna in July 2008, brings together research from international scholars on subjects ranging from the genetics of faith to religion’s role in developing altruism.

Unlike other more opinionated works on the topic, “The Biology of Religious Behavior” invites readers to put aside their biases to consider how science and religion can assist one another in the search for truth.

The research, and the shared effort, is critical, the authors say.

In a world struggling with tribal warfare and unfettered globalization that shuns the common good, the contributions of the biobehavioral sciences on religion can point the way toward a more peaceful, compassionate global culture.

What’s next

The social evolution of religion can be traced through general stages, beginning with the individualistic shamanic religions of hunter-gatherer societies, sociologist Stephen K. Sanderson of the University of California, Riverside writes in the book‘s opening chapter. The transition to agricultural societies brings with it more communal religions, where parts of communities engage in collective rituals.

The next stage is polytheistic religions with a number of “highly specialized gods and professional priesthoods who monopolize religious knowledge and lead elaborate rituals for a lay audience,” Sanderson writes.

Finally, there are the major monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam that had their origins around 600 BCE. The development of urbanization disrupted social networks and increased anxiety and insecurity. “An all-powerful, loving God was an excellent prescription for people’s new sense of threat and danger,” Sanderson noted.

Since monotheistic religions remain popular, and no new stage of religious evolution has been reached, it is tempting to say “that the transcendent monotheistic religions could represent the ‘final’ stage of religious evolution.”

But then again, Anderson declares, “nothing lasts forever.”

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Heading toward extinction?

Some observers argue that the human race is evolving toward secularism, an inevitable progression of a more educated populace to the belief religion is an illusion.

The trend of declining religious participation in the West supports this point of view.

“Is secularism the last phase in the cultural evolution of religious behavior?” Feierman asks in the “The Biology of Religious Behavior. “Or, is secularism the beginning of the end of human society as we have known it?”

This is more than a matter of personal interest, even as several studies show a positive relationship between religion and mental and physical health.

From an evolutionary perspective, religion offers several goods that have helped human societies multiply and be fruitful. That starts with human reproduction. One argument against a natural evolution toward secularism is non-believers generally do not have enough children to reproduce themselves.

Explore Trends in Religious Service Attendance Using the ARDA’s QuickStats

Keeping order

Of equal concern is how secular societies would replace the prosocial forces of religion. Several contributors to the book offer evidence for the observation by evolutionary anthropologist Pascal Boyer that religion holds society together, maintains social order and supports morality.

In a chapter on religious behavior and cooperation, researchers Aria Emilia Yamamoto, Monique Leitao, Rochele Castelo-Branco and Fivia de Araujo Lopes note that religious rituals can contribute to ideas of solidarity and equality and promote acceptance and tolerance in a more convincing way than rules made by humans.

In other words, in God many people can trust. Not so much Nancy Pelosi or Dick Cheney.

Religious societies also can reinforce prosocial behavior through transcendent benefits and punishments – the promise of heaven or the fear of hell – at minimum cost to individuals, researchers said. Take religion away, and one loses a powerful social force preventing individuals from acting in their own self-interest to the detriment of the community.

In practical terms, the economic meltdown precipitated by the mortgage crisis had its origins when enough people decided it was OK to lie and break the rules. On a larger scale, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia are two horrific examples in recent history of the possibilities for evil in secular states freed from any moral constraints other than the sheer exercise of power.

“If you have a society without religion, we really don’t know what the long-term consequences of that would be,” Feierman said in an interview.

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The dark side

Of course, there also is ample evidence of religion being used as a disruptive force in contemporary societies.

“All of the book’s contributors share the belief that the world is dangerously divided on the basis of religious differences and that neither religion nor science is going to bridge this divide alone,” writes Feierman.

The problem is compounded by the tendency of many of the world’s believers to reproduce with people of similar beliefs. These in-group “breeding populations,” Feierman writes, now compete with other “in-group breeding populations for the same limited resources.”

One of the hopes of “The Biology of Religious Behavior,“ Feierman says, is to show what divides the major religions of the world is far smaller than what unites them.

And that it is in everyone’s best interest to get along. Some good news is that religious groups that promote antisocial behaviors tend to go extinct.

In exploring religion’s role in the evolution of altruism, researchers Klaus Jaffe and Luis Zaballa state religions that promote harmony among people best guarantee their long-term survival. The prosocial effect of such religions, they say, might be the evolutionary driver “making them adaptive in evolutionary terms and favoring their maintenance.”

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The genes made me do it

There is evidence that some religiosity is determined. What is unknown is how much of religious behavior is genetically based, researchers say.

We can at least start to raise some intriguing questions in the brave new world of genetic engineering.

So much of the ethical fears surrounding work in the field are that it could pave the way for the development of a society divided by genetically superior and inferior human beings, where scarce medical resources are used to produce stronger, smarter, more beautiful human beings.

The poor, the handicapped, ethnic and racial minorities could then become even more devalued and marginalized. But what if we could develop new generations more likely to share the characteristics of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Mother Teresa, people who find meaning in their lives by serving the poorest of the poor and lifting up all of humanity to greater heights of ethics and compassion.

Can we evolve to love our neighbor as ourselves?

The anecdote Fiermann begin the book with about a father praying for a child in distress is about himself.

His daughter survived and is a child psychologist today.

He does not know whether his prayer made a difference. What he does know is that the moment he appealed to God, “I felt better. Simply by saying that, I didn’t feel so helpless.”

Gaining a greater understanding of the evolution and varieties of religious experience, keeping in mind free will and the ability of human beings to find in the transcendent qualities of hope, peace, forgiveness and love, may make all of us feel less helpless about the future.

— David Briggs

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