Chris Ke-Sihai

Speculative Thinker, Enspyre


This conversation is closed.

What is the evolutionary benefit conferred by religion?

As an anti-religious, pro-scientific younger guy, I always characterised religion as simply a mass delusion - something that was parasitical upon society.

Religious people that I know tended to argue with me about how their religion helped in some or other way, which doesn't answer the question of whether their particular beliefs were correct. But it does lead to an interesting question.

If religion is bad for you, why does most of history revolve around groups of people who shared a religion? Where are the great atheistic states that thrived and prospered without the chains of superstition holding them back? If being religious is in any way a disadvantage, doesn't evolutionary theory say that people and civilisations without religion should have an advantage?

Without arguing that there is or isn't a god, surely we can agree that the behavioural strategy that is most beneficial should become the dominant one? Non-religious people OUGHT TO out-compete the religious ones, atheistic civilisations should have more resources than those burdened by priests.

I'm still not religious, but having a hard time explaining why I'm right. Would I be better off, as an average human being, if I embraced Jesus or Islam or danced around naked at Stonehenge on midsummers?

  • Apr 20 2011: Its a very simple question of "Why should i work hard?". Muslims work very hard because it's stated more than one time in Qur'an and Sunna that Hard workers are good people, and in one case, "if one of you does a job, he should do it to the best of his ability" (roughly translated). Ancient Egypt, you'll find that most of the sciences they mastered had a direct relationship with their religious rituals or beliefs. Astronomy, geometry and construction, in order for them to build the best pyramids and temples, as well as for those buildings to have specific features related with the sky. Chemistry so that they would be able to mummify the bodies of the Pharaohs. I think that the reason religious civilizations grew very strong was because they had a reason to work, their beliefs pushed them when they lost hope or became confused about why they are trying so hard to achieve something that they wont benefit from (a scientist's theories will be properly applied probably after he dies.)

    That's what i think. Anyway, i have one final comment. U started your post with "anti-religious, pro-scientific". You're assuming religion "clashes" with science. Some of the pillars of science were religious scientists. Einstien was jewish, Newton was christian, Check the "Muslim Golden Age", A lot of scientists that created the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, medicine and astronomy were religious. I am not trying to "invite" you to any religion, i just want you to understand that if religion was against science (like the church (not the christian belief) in the middle-ages), none of the religious societies would have created any civilizations.
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      Apr 21 2011:  
      Great response Mohammed,

      I would add that “working very hard” is one of the reason why some of our greatest historical art / music / literature, et cetera... all came during the religious golden ages where these artists worked for “something greater than themselves”. A great example would be the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
  • Apr 20 2011: I've given a lot of thought to this topic. Here is what I have come up with.

    In prehistorical times, things were very much different for human beings, in ways that were so profound that it is very difficult for us to understand unless we exert a great deal of thought on the matter. For instance, no ideas of private property existed before we developed agriculture. No ideas of privacy existed until the industrial age. The concept of children being different from adults (other than being smaller and less experienced) was invented when we went agrarian, the idea of adolescence invented for socioeconomic reasons for the industrial age.

    It is important to understand that these human beings were just as 'smart' as we are. They lacked in knowledge, but not in mental capacity (in most respects, poor nutrition did negatively affect them especially after agrarianism came around which markedly hurt humans in many ways). So, like us, it was impossible for them to simply 'not know' things. Their brains would invent explanations if none were apparent. Their intuition led them to group things and assign personalities to them. When the thunder roared, their associative brains searched and searched and came up with gods, and they tried to assign motive and character to things, assuming that things like wildfires and lightning were inherently bad simply because it could be bad for them. This also provided a common means of 'packaging' ideas and spreading them, regardless of their rational validity. The result of that was that people who accepted too much of the religion which bore false ideas died off. Our mental faculties are a life-and-death matter, and that was very directly obvious to people until about the 1950s. Religion helped raise people out of complete ignorance and provided false ideas which were 'good enough' and useful for survival, though it included a great deal that hampered it too. Once we discovered reason, religion lost all benefit.
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    Apr 20 2011: Hi Chris! I enjoyed your question and the logic that generated it. In my opinion, religion has helped mankind by giving them the sense of something greater than oneself or of human power. In some religions it suggested that people could have access to all of the might of the universe when they were in trouble and that allowed people to hold on when everything was bleak. In other cases it helped people to develop inward laws of behaviour that propelled societies forward such as religious laws against incest. In other cases- like sanitation decrees of the bible- it simply gave good ideas a 'supernatural' authority so that the community did not get sick.
    Given that neuroscience and psychology have proven that there are brain structures that seem to respond to the idea of 'God' or of the numinous- I agree with you that it must be there for some positive purpose.
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    Apr 21 2011: Three hundred years ago it could have been (and was) argued that monarchy was the preferred political system since all successful civilizations up until that time had been monarchies.

    There probably was some evolutionary advantage to monarchy during a certain stage of human cultural evolution. In time human civilization transcended that stage of development.

    It will do the same with religion.
  • Apr 20 2011: Benefits are subjective and comparative. Comparisons must made against current history, for which we have a sample of one. So, it cannot be said that religion confers benefits in all possible histories. Also, consider adaptive systems and processes: We speak of an organism as evolutionarily successful, while actually is is not the organism that is successful, but rather the environment that produced it, since all organism are direct products of their environments. Thus. religion seems to be well adapted in an environment that produces religion. When the environment changes, it produces newly adapted organisms. Therefore it can happen that religion, since it is not readily adaptive might become extinct in some other environment.
  • Apr 20 2011: I think my ideas are pretty close to Debra S. below.

    1. Religion provides a powerful rallying cry during times of personal distress and inter-group conflict. When people believe their cause is buttressed by supernatural forces, they're willing to fight against difficult odds. 2. Some Religions may also confer reproductive benefits by defining successful family roles which provide improved outcomes for reproduction in subsequent generations. Social rituals ensure a continuity of ideas--including survival strategies and behaviors. In the case of marriage, rituals even shape habits of procreation. A species which evolved helpless offspring like ours can only do so if an extended system of care evolves in parallel. 3. Resources spent providing for the priestly class--andother 'costs' associated with religious practice such as animal sacrifice--may be outweighed by the return gained from the other effects conferred by religion.

    Perhaps an analogue for religion and similar societal constructs may be a peacock's tail--simultaneously requiring an apparent poor allocation of resources while conferring subtle benefits for promulgation of the species.
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    Apr 26 2011: "A man lives in a village next to a forest. One day he starts to talk to the villagers about the forest. 'Did you know there are trees growing in there and each autumn the leaves fall, in the winter they look dead, though in the summer great fruits grow on them we can eat'. The villagers say 'that's awesome!', I did not know, thank you, now I can feed my children more easy, I do not need to work so hard on my backyard. The man is excited he helped these villagers, and he figures to tell them more. 'Did you know the ants can lift six times their own weight and everything is related to each other' and he startes to talk about all the relations, bindings there are. The man really understands every little detail of the forest, it's like Neo in the Matrix, he knows the transcript."

    This story can develop in many ways... The villagers could get overwhelmed by the information, and some will help structuring. Some people might walk away, realizing they know enough to feed themselves. Some people realize the forest can be multiplied and so they do to care for more people.

    We would not believe the storyline, however, if the man proclaims the exact order of the trees and all the bindings is the only true way. Other forests, jungles and oases should be burned to be replaced by the one he believes in, understands, masters.

    The forest looks to be on it's own, though is connected to the global ecosystem. One planet. We need forests, matter for our body. We need culture, immatter, for our mind. We need a certain amount of detail to support ourselves, in prosperity we just need to find the fruits as there are enough, in despair we need to understand the forest a bit better because we do not want to turn it into a desert, insanity.

    For nature, 'we' talk about climate change, local communities talk about the suffering of local forests in fear of hunger. I believe we should think more in this analogy also for the wellbeing of our minds.

    As all around we scream; "Look! trees!"
  • Apr 23 2011: Religion is one of the "cements" of civilization. If we argue that civilization is superior to no civilization--at least in terms of humanity's survival and advancement--then, in whatever way that religion supports civilization, it supports the evolutionary concept of selection, helping some humans survive while others do not.

    Religion, for all of its flaws, is an advancement over purely "law of the jungle" living. It is a shared approach--which allows a degree of enforcement. These shared beliefs not only bind a people together in terms of theological/mystical beliefs, but just as two strangers that both have on Steelers jerseys have something in common that allows them to strike up a conversation, so, too, religion provides a common framework in which we can all work together.

    Beyond the mystical elements of religion, there are ethical elements of what is and is not acceptable, that are passed down to its adherents and their children. Further, these elements must be within certain parameters or they will be rejected (e.g., if the priests say that everyone must cut off their right hand, some people aren't going to agree). This keeps the priesthood in balance--a market force against certain priestly excesses.

    In a nutshell, religion has enabled men to live together in a degree of harmony (at least WITHIN that religion) that has permitted the rise of the other advantages of civilization...culture, advanced thought, art, and, it is hoped, the evolution of religion itself to higher and higher degrees of understanding and ethical knowledge. Religion just might be one of the best "tools" that mankind has for ensuring our survival. Though science might be more rational, it is to religion that people give their hearts and deepest allegiances, and to which they retreat in times of great crisis.
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    Apr 23 2011: You ask if there is an adaptive benefit in religious systems. They persist so they must be adaptive.

    Firstly, there is a vast difference between believing in god and being a religious adherent. Those believing in god only, say they experience a direct relationship. They are somewhat akin to free thinkers. For those who are religious adherents, religion provides a set of rules governing their relationship with god; intermediaries (priests/shamans )who act as guides to help you understand the rules.

    It’s a difficult for me to separate god from religion, I can’t think of any religion that doesn’t have a supernatural underpinning. Religion gives society structure. It is so effective that theocracies meld statehood and religious ideology. A state ruled by divinely guided clergy can exact an utterly oppressive control, in god’s name . One benefit of religion is order; order is adaptive; allows us to carry on with life.

    It's believed that we are the only species that knows it will die. It’s a terrifying live and to die. Our mortality may account for the 'invention' of god and religion. Religious adherence, provides comfort; comfort in knowing that you are doing god’s will; solace in knowing that when you die, if you’ve been good, you will be with god.

    Religion provides us with psychological ease; the universe is a chaotic, terrifying place...Tsunami’s, volcanic eruptions, floods, fires, disease, asteroids crashing into earth...creating incredible loss in our personal lives. Religion is a safe haven. It comforts us. Many of us cannot bear to live life without the psychological safety net of a god. For many, life is just easier when you're religious.

    I am a lapsed catholic. I was an atheist. However, rationally, I don’t know one way of the other if god exists, so probably agnostic is the best fit.
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    Apr 22 2011: How can one out-compete placebo? Can science create a better drug?
    This is really the issue with religion. It is not simply belief in a god. The reason it is still around is because it has a affect on the mind in the same way a placebo does. Other TED talks tells us of research where a $5 placebo pill outperforms the $1 placebo pill. The fact is, even when you tell people that it is a placebo, it still "works." So we can go around all we like questioning the existence of God, but the fact of the matter is there are many nonbelievers who go to church for the community that is formed in the teaching of the practice, the traditions, and the service to others.
    It's called, Faith" for a reason.
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    Apr 22 2011: if anything it drives a reason to keep populated.
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    Apr 21 2011: Jill Bolte Taylor gave one of the most famous TED talks ever, describing her post-stroke experience after her the left side of her brain was virtually shut down and the right side of her brain took over. She experienced the life force energy, deep bliss and gained insight into how our brains function. Later, during an NPR Fresh Air interview, she said something along these lines, "Religion is the story the left brain tells the right brain in order to satisfy the right brain's need to transcend our conscious, rational experience." The left brain carries out our logical, practical, linear thinking, while the right brain manages our intuitive, emotional, non-linear thinking. Our unconscious is much more powerful than our conscious thought. Religion is one way we can use language (left-brain processing) to attempt to express the nonrational (right-brain functioning) and place ourselves in the cosmos. It's a balancing act that satisfies this deep-seated need. By doing this, perhaps it benefits us by helping give us the collective confidence and the drive to keep striving and moving forward with our collective endeavors. .
  • Apr 21 2011: please first clear the question.:
    asking well is half of reply.

    what is definition of religion?
    do you limit religion in Christianity?
    you mean Christianity or generally all religions?
    if Christianity then what kind of Christianity?
    if generally, do you know all religions perfect while you are speaking about religion?
    what is your definition of Bible? which Bible?
    have you read Gospel of Barnabas?
    why bibles are different?
    is current bible same as bible at time of Jesus (peace on him)?
    the bible you say has conflict with science is which bible? you mean current bible or bible at time of Jesus (peace on him)?
    do you include Islam and Quran in religion?
    have you read, know and understand Torah, Bible and Quran perfect?

    please first clear these.
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      Apr 21 2011: Dear S. R. Ahmadi,
      You must be fun at parties! Why not just jump in and give us your answers? We will all work to understand you and your perspectives.
      • Apr 22 2011: Dear Debra Smith,
        before you ask a clear question no one can give you a clear reply.
        please first reply questions and clear question.
        each condition has different reply.
        I am waiting to question be cleared.
    • Apr 24 2011: "Dear Debra Smith,
      before you ask a clear question no one can give you a clear reply.
      please first reply questions and clear question.
      each condition has different reply.
      I am waiting to question be cleared." - what?

      Disregarding that purposely confusing reply, let me ask you to do a quick exercise to help you understand how I feel about Christianity but also about most religions.

      Imagine that several thousand years from now the main religion revolved around praying to a tiger and sacrificing your first born as food. Written through the word of the tiger via man, this belief system has many documents that prove to any semi-intelligent person that the tiger is our savior and we must worship it if we are to be saved. Never mind that through research you’ll find that everything that makes this religion up came from splicing together pieces from older religions and myths. Do you think you would live in fear that your beliefs based only on love and compassion are wrong and that someday you might be eaten by the bear for all of eternity? If it were me, my goal would be to open the eyes of the participants and to show them that life will be ok without the big tiger in the sky, that sacrificing your first born is evil and that without a creator the universe becomes a wondrous string of events that creates a sense of accountability in your actions in deciding your future.
      I leave you with a quote (I'm agnostic but it fits)

      "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
      Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-1971)
  • Apr 21 2011: I think it (religion) may have helped the small hunter/gatherer groups in our earlier days. Later it has become a habit and a social excuse for others to separate groups. Belief that a 'being' created us and is acting as a "middle-manager" for our daily lives is a bit of a concern to me - mostly because we work so hard to make certain our lives go on as need be. Throwing our hands up to the sky and asking for the strength to go on really does seem misplaced.

    To answer your question: IT DOESN'T GIVE ANY BENEFIT ANY LONGER! The so-called holy books we use. (The BIBLE, The Koran) are all old bronze age texts. We've lost large parts of the Bible and priests and monks decided which books should or shouldn't be included in the Bible. How can they be divinely inspired if some guy decided whether they fit or not? Frankly, it's embarrassing that any of our modern societies give them any credence at all.
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    Apr 21 2011: Thank you so much for this great question/idea. My take on it is this:Science and religion are converging. Physics has found that mind or the metaphysical is the underlying foundation of everything physical. Religion stripped of superstition and prejudice at its foundation describes the same truth. The evolutionary benefit has been the fact that ideas have power and people united by ideas tend to prosper and work better together than those who are not.

    German physicist and one of the founding fathers of Quantum Theory, Max Planck, said that “all matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration which holds the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.“

    The Universe begins to look more like a great thought than a machine. Sir James Jeans British Physicist
    Sir James Jeans, British physicist, 1877-1946. James Jeans, British physicist, 1877-1946.

    It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware. Albert Einstein
    Albert Einstein.

    "I am not the physical. Life is immortal. I have no sense of death. I know that at some time in the future you may not be able to see me, but the non-physical reality is just something we just have not yet tuned in to." - Buckminster Fuller

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”
    Max Planck quote
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    Apr 20 2011: Hi Chris, I guess understand your struggle. For me it boiled down to; why divide? Everybody finds his/her own motivation to believe or not while it helps them not to be 'afraid' of the future. To match with the science mindset; recent studies of the brain show there is a part in the brain dealing with your personal timeline towards the inevitable death. A constant fight and awareness to stay alive as long as possible by facing the fear of 'the end'. This activity is counter balanced by a part in the brain looking out for 'eternity/the whole'. In simple words: one part deals with 'me' and one part with 'everything else'. This 'everything/eternity' has been tried by many cultures to understand in words, concentration or movement/dance.

    Now what I think that being able to 'measure' the existence of 'eternity or collective consciousness' and get a glimps of what this experience means to you and on the other hand the religious traditions, is a matter of how to interpretate experiences of this brain activity. The question if there is a God out there, an energy field, a collective consciousness or personal drive and intuition is not important. What is important we have to parts in life me+myself and me+others.

    This might sound messy when I read it back ;) Though if I would have a clear answer I would have atheists or religious fanatics at my doorstep ;)
  • Apr 26 2011: Logic is the way GOD thinks and expects those created in HIS image to think; deny this and give an account of logic.
  • Apr 24 2011: There is a very good book written on this very topic, titled "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer.

    I am somewhat surprised nobody has referenced this book yet in this thread.
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      Apr 25 2011: Looks like an interesting book. What does the author say about the future of religion?
  • Apr 22 2011: the benefit of research about religion is:
    making the heart calm
  • Apr 22 2011: Religion: derived from Latin root religare, meaning to bind

    A rope is a benefit when I need to climb; it is not so much when it is used to encumber me.

    My mother's womb was a blessing until it became something from which to be delivered.

    The evolutionary benefits conferred by religion, a cultural institution, are its ability to preserve/convey information. Benefits may be judged according to its ability to help a society progress.

    At one time in history, we thought our sun was not like other stars; today we know different. It may be that we have many more religions than we identify (all written documents may be classified as "scripture" by definition, including, say constitutions, which may or may not beneficial).
  • Apr 20 2011: What is the religious benefit conferred by evolution?
    "Religion is a byproduct of what evolutionary benefits?"
    We are now close to demonstrating one of the speaker's points, by asking slightly different questions based on the same assumption.
    In order to question the question- question the premise/ assumption that it's based on.
    A quick and dirty way to do that is to contrast the outrageous question "What is the evolutionary benefit conferred by religion?" with the original "What is the religious benefit conferred by evolution?"
    Doing so 1. highlights my own bias- of religion or science, which is cause and which is effect? 2. offers the possibilty of better questions- do science and religion overlap in any useful way? What would be the larger question each discipline serves?
    Which brings to mind Stephen Gould's idea in Rocks of Ages of NOMA, Non Overlapping Magesteria. The result is to bring David Hume to a postmodern audience. Physical science is limited to pursuing an understanding of the physical world. Religion/ philosophy is limited to pursuing an understanding of what it means to be a genuine and genuinely moral human being.
    Perhaps Einstein said it best-
    "Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame."
    Which brings it back to the speaker- sorry about the delay- learning to enjoy the fact of our general uncertainty. Or as an earlier thinker put it, joyfully entering into the cloud of unknowing.
  • Apr 20 2011: I think you're asking the wrong question. I think the question should be
    "Religion is a byproduct of what evolutionary benefits?"
    fear of death/fight for survival,
    ability to recognize intention,
    the necessity and desire to understand the environment
    these all come to mind, I'm sure you could think of more.
    • Apr 20 2011: The "wrong question"? Sir the notion of a wrong question does against the cited TedTalk... Your question is about as right as the original, though indirect and not responsive to the question put fourth.
      • Apr 20 2011: The man was looking for a correlation and I was pointing one out. To answer his question directly: there is none.
        Even if one were to put forth the ideas you hear a lot, like religion is comforting then it merely acts to delude the individual, and the species would most likely be better off facing their problems head on(obviously I have no evidence for this assertion).
        You are right about no "wrong questions" I should have chosen my words better. But once again I took the question more as a search for a correlation, as to why religion would originate in a species, within a strictly evolutionarily advantageous frame of reference. I apologize.

        I guess I should add that we have only reached a point of global systems and globalization very recently, so religion hasn't had to time yet to be as detrimental as it might be. Superstition in general will have a very clear deleterious affect within a short time I presume.
        I will point out one example, in Genetics.
        Who will have the advantage, the person who says "YES let's be better and take hold of every advantage to this whole survival thing I can get", or the person who say"nah that's not "gods" will."
      • Apr 20 2011: The talk said that being wrong is beneficial. It did NOT say that wrongness does not exist. Things are right or wrong. In terms of the 'wrong question', it means that the question asked is not likely to provide the knowledge the person desires. It is an objective property, and learning that it is wrong is beneficial. Not learning that it is wrong, or laboring under the presumption that it is OK to continue being wrong in the face of proof of a flaw, is harmful.
  • Apr 20 2011: What is the religious benefit conferred by evolution?

    The right/wrong question leads to the right/wrong answer.

    Firstly, is there a direct relationship between evolution and religion? The scope and context of religion is during one lifetime (your lifetime), and that's what matters in relation to the individual, and on the other hand evolution's scope and focus is most definitely outside and bigger than a single individual's lifespan entirely as it focuses on the change (delta) achieved between successive generations.

    I always find it helpful to question the question before looking for the right/wrong answer. So, if I had first asked your question, I would then ask myself "Is this the right question for what I'm looking for? Does it really matter to me... to anybody? What am I looking for? What really matters to me?" Then, if I thought what you explained afterwards, I might then rephrase the question with multiple, smaller, logical ones:

    1. If the scope of religion is one's own lifespan (what you do with your own life from birth till death), then why was it parasitical upon society? What is the relationship between religion and (human) parasites? Answer: Peter Law's suggestion - review the history.

    2. Is it logical to be pro-scientific and characterize anything (without facts)... hence this question? The religious people "I" spoke to argued with facts of how it helped in some way. Do I have facts to support my/another argument... hence this question again? Religions are typically based on some book, or happening or some fact, while science begins with a hypothesis in order to begin forming a concluding argument. I am in search of facts... facts on either side of the argument... that is the emerging theme here - the lack of it!

    3. What if I'm wrong? What if they're wrong? What is the consequence of the answer to the right question? I must decide to live accordingly, and to avoid parasitical biases in the process I must find this answer myself!
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    Apr 20 2011: Hi Chris
    I applaud your thought process. Logical, & to the point. How about a bit more study of history. Which, if any, of the various religions (incl. Atheism if you like) produced the most beneficial societies ? I can't really comment, as I'm biased as anything; but a guy like you would be worth listening to.