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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: British physicist targets theory-of-the-month on "how religion got started"

British physicist David Tyler, in his mild-mannered but incisive way, comments on Fincher and Thornhill's theory-of-the-month that religion got started because it reduced the spread of epidemics and thus was "naturally selected." The basic idea is that religions form closed little groups that do not admit outsiders. He writes,

The first concern is about causation. What is the cause and what is the effect? How do we know? The authors do not appear to discuss these questions. The areas of high religious diversity are in the tropics, where diseases tend to be more virulent and more numerous. Life in the tropics introduces many challenges that are not faced by those of us living in temperate zones of the Earth. Some analysis of lifestyles in the tropics would appear to be warranted, but this is not supplied by the authors.
Citing other problems, Tyler concludes,


There is a strong presupposition in the minds of many scholars that religion must be an evolved behaviour and that it must be possible to identify the drivers for the rise of religion as a phenomenon. What few will even consider in their research is whether man is a spiritual, as well as a material, being and that the drivers for religious diversity come from mankind's spiritual nature. This position is, historically, part of the Christian worldview and, at very least, it deserves to be tested and scrutinised fairly by academics.
Of course, the position that Mario and I take in The Spiritual Brain is that the driver of religion is humankind's spiritual nature. How it came about is currently unknown, but there is some reason to believe, based on prehistoric cave paintings and other art works, that it happened rather suddenly.

On that view, diversity is the outcome of different personality types, mind sets, moral development, and such. Pioneer psychologist William James recognized this long ago, when he pointed out that cheerful people tend to adopt different spiritualities than depressive ones.

The silliness of the current theory-of-the-month lies principally in the fact a stroll down any street in downtown Toronto, where I live, will show that most major religions thrive on evangelization, - the very opposite of avoiding disease by forming a closed little group. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hare Krishna, secular humanists - whoever they are, they want you to come in, germs and all, attend their services, read their literature, go through their initiation - and then go out and bring in more people.

Was religion ever any different? Ancestor worship and shamanism are different, because, by their very nature, they do not encourage evangelism. But, as we pointed out in The Spiritual Brain, religions of that type are bound up with magic - best understood as a primitive attempt at technology, an attempt to control the world without really understanding it. So we will not understand much about the evolution of religion if we focus on that kind of thing.
Religion, separated from magic (which is often forbidden in major religions), tends to be evangelistic by nature. People who have apprehended what they believe to be a spiritual truth usually want to communicate it, to help others. Religion has probably spread as many epidemics than it has stopped, for that very reason - not that anyone could do anything about that until the existence and role of viruses and bacteria were understood.)

One thing I find intriguing about materialist theories-of-the-month about religion or spirituality is the way they typically begin by ignoring the most obvious facts about the subject. Thus, the best theory of religion becomes a fact-free theory.

See also: Religion: It got started to avoid the spread of disease?

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