Thursday, August 28, 2008

Religion: Why "evolutionary" explanations don't really work

Once again recently, I found myself explaining to a friend why I do not have much use for the attempt to explain religion according to the alleged evolutionary psychology that we have inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors through our genes and replicate robot-style in our neurons. Rather, I wrote,

I take the view that the origin of religion is bound up with the origin of consciousness. Religion attempts to answer the obvious questions that occur to a conscious being – for example:

How did the world come to be the way it is?

Why do I do things I shouldn’t do, and don’t even really want to? Will anyone punish me for this?

What happened to my father when he died?

It is not, in my view, necessary to look for an explanation for why people have these questions - as if the explanation were some sort of mechanism.

The questions are a function of conscious awareness of our environment. We may benefit from thinking about these things - or may not. But we think about them because we have minds.
So my lack of esteem for evolutionary psychologists' explanations of religion arises from two sources:

(1) They look for mechanisms, benefits, or byproducts that don’t necessarily exist and certainly don’t need to exist.

(2) They often neglect inconvenient facts that we DO know – for example, that human consciousness appears to have arisen swiftly. If the cave paintings are any guide, assigning a strictly pragmatic value to human activities becomes very risky after that.

Also the answers proposed by religions take people in very different directions: Procreating a large tribe, celibacy, and acquiring a necklace of shrunken heads are very different answers to the question "How should I live?"

That is an unpromising beginning to a search for a general mechanism or byproduct.

Another example is this: The conviction that our minds/souls somehow survive bodily death is probably as old as humanity. Both extinct Neanderthal man and our own family, homo sapiens commonly buried the dead in ways that implied that they would live again.

Were early humans more "fit for survival" because they believed that? There is no way to know because the belief itself changed what fitness for survival meant to them. Fitness often came to mean devotion to one's ancestors as well as one's children, and dying to protect one's ancestors' graves would be rewarded by favours from beyond.

A further problem with trying to understand religion in an "evolutionary" way is that every type of religious conviction imaginable is probably still present today somewhere. That is because, unlike life forms, extinct religions can simply be reinvented (e.g. the spread of Wicca).

Ethical monotheism is gaining ground worldwide against local cults that offer no systematic teachings. But that seems more the result of a trend toward education and mass communications than an evolution based on fitness. Education teaches logical reasoning, and monotheism is more logically satisfying than polytheism. I predict that if this trend reverses itself, local cults will become more important again.

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