Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?

Posted by Andrew on May 25, 2017 in Science

There is a lot of debate about the utility of religion. In my opinion, the so-called new atheists make a convincing case for how it is phenomenally more bad than good. I am a huge fan of people like Christopher Hitchens making the argument that religion poisons everything, even though I don’t agree with him as much as I used to. There do seem to be positive aspects of religion, but I agree that all of them can be gained from a completely secular context.

I used to use this justification to advocate for throwing out the baby with the bath water. People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Hitchens convinced me for many years that religion is evil. You can achieve rewards like transcendence and a sense of community with no thought of any god or holy book. I viewed meditation as the atheist version of praying, which I still do (meditation, not praying), and I gained a sense of community from fellow atheists. I was raised as Christian, so I knew from my own experience that people are full of shit when they argue that they can’t have good lives without believing unfalsifiable claims.

I didn’t think that religion played any positive role in human history. So anything to do with it made me angrily preach about its dangers, in the same way that fundamentalists yell from their soap boxes about the dangers of other religions. “All this magic man in the sky bullshit is insidious, and it’s going to destroy the world by making people behave based on woo-woo nonsense,” is what I thought.

But I recently learned that religion having had no benefits in evolutionary history is certainly not a consensus. Some scientists claim that it’s a harmful byproduct of ideological thinking. Others believe that it played a valid role in our social evolution. The question that the debate comes down to is this: Is group selection part of evolution, or are concepts only selected for on an individual level? Is group selection real or not?

I don’t have a sufficient understanding of the science on both sides of the argument for me have a valid opinion. It would be easy for me to believe that group selection is not a workable theory, since I am emotionally attached to hating religion. However, there are phenomenally intelligent people who I respect on both sides of this debate.

Neuroscientists like Sam Harris, evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins, and cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker make convincing cases for group selection being an illusion. They argue that selection only happens on an individual basis. Pinker explains how changes in one person’s gene expression is very different from this happening collectively, in his article called The False Allure of Group Selection. This is supported by Dawkins’ claims in his book called The Selfish Gene, and other work. How much your gene expression affects the entire makeup of your genome is debatable. It is apparently difficult to achieve a strong result. But epigenetics is still a valid idea, which has to do with the interaction with your environment altering your gene expression. Even though this is the case, according to people like Pinker, it is hard to see how individual alteration of gene expression can be shared amongst an entire group. He claims that social changes have much weaker impacts on altering your entire genome through gene expression than other interactions. So if a group of people become religious, then at the genetic level, you cannot legitimately claim that this religion continues spreading with the religious adherents’ offspring. The parents’ religion would not alter their genome enough for it to be passed onto their children. This is my amateur understanding of some crucial highlights of the position against group selection.

On the other side of the debate, evolutionary biologists like David Sloan Wilson, and social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt make equally convincing arguments for the validity of group selection. Humans in our modern form have always been xenophobic. This is because fearing the outsider helps you more quickly detect threats, like a lion hiding in the bushes, about to pounce on you and tear out your throat. The better you are at noticing the potential for harm, the better you are at continuing the evolution of our species. You enhance your chances for survival and spreading your genes when you are better at detecting predators.

Wilson and Haidt appear to see ideologies like religion as a way that humans capitalized on xenophobia, in a way. One person detected a threat, this idea spread among a group, and it bonded them together. As Haidt points out in his article called Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, this increased war and violence between those adhering to different ideologies. But it also strengthened the connections between members of the same groups. The bonds continued to grow, which increased the number of people believing religious ideas. The theory for why this group thought continued throughout almost the entirety of human history, and is still with us, is that it has significant utility. So religion caused ample chaos, and continues to do so, but it is a crucial bonding tool. The more connected we are, the kinder we are to members in the same group, and in general. Xenophobia can eventually decrease itself, in a way, because stronger groups can have more empathy toward outsiders as well. Therefore, if I understand it correctly, the position for group selection is that it is pragmatic for evolution because it helps societies form. People construct groups, they think alike, and then their numbers grow until they make their own countries. The first settlers or invaders of a nation often follow the same religion, so entire civilizations are built on it, informed by group selection.

This is a complex issue. There are far too many factors for me or any other average person to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, without doing a lot more research. Even then, I don’t have the expertise to interpret it with an accurate degree of understanding. There are countless other excellent points on both sides of the argument. One of them is the free rider problem. In evolutionary biology, this has to do with the fact that individuals outside of groups don’t tend to die, stopping the spread of their genes, just because they were not religious. Does every member of a group have to think the same way for social factors like religion to be replicated through evolution? I don’t understand enough about evolution to know the answer to that question.

So is religion an evolutionary adaptation? I really don’t know. It may have been beneficial enough throughout human history that it was selected for through group selection. Or it could be a harmful byproduct of xenophobia that has caused exponentially more harm than good. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Perhaps religion played an important evolutionary role, but it is not necessary now, and the progress walks hand in hand with senseless rape, torture, and murder. However, that doesn’t mean that religion isn’t good for some people, in some ways. Maybe we think ideologically no matter how much we try to avoid it. Regardless of the truth, whether religion is an evolutionary adaptation or not is a fascinating question to consider. This is especially true since it plays an enormous part in the lives of almost everyone, regardless of your religion, or lack thereof. There are at least 4 billion people in the world who claim to be religious. Whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, I think that it’s mind-boggling to think about the role religion might have played in evolution.

Originally published at on May 25, 2017.