Religion, Evolved

Question from Doug:
I was wondering. If evolution is responsible for everything that is, then what was (or is) the evolutionary advantage of belief in a deity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Belief in gods need not have had an evolutionary advantage in order to have resulted from our evolution. It could instead be a by-product of other psychological traits which do have direct advantages.

Two such traits are obvious candidates:
– Human beings see deliberate action (“agency”) everywhere, even sometimes when there is none. It’s a “better safe than sorry” reflex that encouraged our ancestors to avoid tall grass moving oddly rather than take the chance that a carnivorous beast was moving through it. By the same token, people see what Christians call “the hand of God” in all sorts of occurrences, most of which have perfectly good natural explanations (the rest are merely unexplained). Imagining powerful beings controlling all such things was a short leap to make.
– Children can learn from their parents and other guardians, long before they develop the capacity for critical thinking. The benefits of this are obvious; if kids didn’t accept instructions before they were seven or so they’d have a tough time surviving even that long (either in the ancient world of predators and bandits, or in the modern world of hot stoves and busy roads). When supernatural doctrine is taught to children, most of them accept it without question and retain the beliefs all their lives. Thus a religion can sustain itself even if it never recruits a single non-believing adult.

That’s my opinion of the evolutionary reasons for widespread religion. I don’t think it has a significant direct evolutionary benefit, especially since archaeological evidence suggests that we had already evolved to Homo sapiens before the first signs of religion emerged. As long as religion hasn’t literally endangered the human species (and as much death and destruction as it’s caused, it hasn’t been quite that catastrophic so far) its existence wouldn’t have been seriously threatened by natural selection alone.

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