I have said often in these pages that it seems likely that the human propensity for religion is a cognitive adaptation that has flourished because it tends to improve the cohesion of social groups, thereby increasing the fitness of those groups in competition against others. As David Sloan Wilson argues in his book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, this idea of “group-level selection”, though out of favor among Darwinian theorists for many years, is now becoming repectable again, and is an appropriate place in which to look for adaptive explanations of various sorts of social behavior.
One common objection to naturalistic accounts of human morality — usually made in support of theistic viewpoints — is human altruism, which often seems to go beyond any clear expectation of reciprocity, or benefit to individual fitness. But on a group-selection level it becomes far easier to understand: it makes economic sense for a social organism, living as part of a group, to exhibit behavior that might reduce its relative fitness within the group as long as it increases the fitness of the group as a whole, relative to other groups. This in turn improves the average prospects of all the individual members of the more-altruistic group; the rising tide lifts all the boats more than enough to account for the within-group sacrifices the altruistic mindset requires. Religion provides an excellent framework for this sort of social arrangement.
This is not, of course, to say that there is a Christian genome, a Muslim genome, and so forth. But what it does mean is that the sorts of brains that are better able to learn these social behaviors — the brains that are more easily trained to hold the sort of concepts that aid in the suppression of individual advantage over that of the group, and perhaps to have the kind of “religious experiences” that reinforce belief in, and the cohesive power of, religious traditions — will be favored.
Once you have the right sort of brains in place, a new sort of competition begins: a cultural arms race between various social systems. Those that do the best job of binding the group, and of reinforcing the behaviors that lead to group success, will do better in competition. If my group has a religious system in place that offers me, in exchange for my self-sacrifice, the approval of my entire tribe in this life and an eternal reward in the next, we are likely to prevail in competion against teams less well organized.
Religions themselves will, then, be subject to design pressure; the most successful ones will have an impressive arsenal of cognitive and social features that protect them and help them propagate.
Because religions are ideas, their habitat, their ecosystem, is therefore human minds. “Propagation”, to a religion, means making a copy of itself in another mind, and the religions that do this best are going to enjoy a “fitness” advantage of their own. They might achieve this by containing, in part, ideas that encourage the mind each copy resides in to be aggressive about making more copies in other minds — or to believe that it is necessary to eliminate those minds that contain copies of competing sets of ideas.
On this view of religion, religious idea-sets can be seen as having Darwinian “interests” of their own, and can be looked at as organisms unto themselves; indeed a religion that is especially effective at propagating itself into other minds might do very well independently of the effect it has on the fitness of the host. This might take the form of a religion that causes all its adherents not to breed, or to commit suicide. Examples of such religious cults do indeed exist; the Shakers, for example, were celibate. (You probably don’t know any Shakers, and now you know why.) We can also imagine that a religious idea-set might confer fitness advantages on a group under some circumstances, but not others; we might expect these religions, which could do very well for a while, to die out as the competitive environment changes.
If an organism that requires a host tends to kill its hosts once acquired, it must either be very good at finding new ones quickly, or it will not be around long. But some organisms enter a mutually beneficial relationship with their hosts, which, when it occurs between living organisms, we call symbiosis. We should expect that the most successful religions will be like this: sturdy of design, good at propagating themselves, and tending to increase the fitness of the minds that they occupy. And we should also expect that, given the long symbiosis of human minds and religion, there will be plenty of human brains that are good hosts: that are correctly set up to enter such a relationship.
There has been quite a lot of research, lately, confirming that religious people are in various ways better off than the rest of us. In an article published a few days ago in the New York Times, John Tierney, himself an unbeliever, cites a new study (by Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby of the University of Miami) showing that religious adherents exhibit better self-control. Tierney writes:
This sounded to me uncomfortably similar to the conclusion of the nuns who taught me in grade school, but Dr. McCullough has no evangelical motives. He confesses to not being much of a devotee himself. “When it comes to religion,” he said, “professionally, I’m a fan, but personally, I don’t get down on the field much.”
His professional interest arose from a desire to understand why religion evolved and why it seems to help so many people. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.
These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.
“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” Dr. McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”
Well, maybe it’s just that people like that tend to gravitate toward religion. No, says Dr. McCullough:
But which came first, the religious devotion or the self-control? It takes self-discipline to sit through Sunday school or services at a temple or mosque, so people who start out with low self-control are presumably less likely to keep attending. But even after taking that self-selection bias into account, Dr. McCullough said there is still reason to believe that religion has a strong influence.
“Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”
In a study published by the University of Maryland in 2003, students who were subliminally exposed to religious words (like God, prayer or bible) were slower to recognize words associated with temptations (like drugs or premarital sex). Conversely, when they were primed with the temptation words, they were quicker to recognize the religious words.
“It looks as if people come to associate religion with tamping down these temptations,” Dr. McCullough said. “When temptations cross their minds in daily life, they quickly use religion to dispel them from their minds.”
So is it organized religion, with all its cultural trappings, that produces this result, or just a spiritual nature generally?
In one personality study, strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low.
“Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”
Tierney, who is not religious, finds all of this rather dispiriting:
So what’s a heathen to do in 2009? Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.
Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.
“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”
Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.
“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”
The rational, naturalist infidel does find himself in a bit of a pickle here. The myths, folklore, and superstitions of religion have no pull on him whatsoever. Unsupported by any compelling evidence, and full of Ptolemaic epicycles and special defensive pleading, they seem quite obviously made up, and almost certainly false. (At best, given that they make incompatible assertions, all but one must be false, and to us unbelievers, that one is too.) But swallowing the pill — suppressing one’s intellectual immune-system so as to let the virus enter and take hold — seems to confer real, measurable benefits.
The question, then, is: must it be one or the other? Can we wean ourselves from religion? Can we fly without the magic feather? Can we learn to have the benefits, the solidarity, the “sacredness” of religion without the supernatural beliefs?
Inshallah, I think we can.
You can read McCullough and Willoughby’s paper here.