Sacred Fictions

Is religion a weapon in the Darwinian war for survival?

Posted May 03, 2012

Brenda is no more real than the hero of her story.  Like Yahweh fashioning Adam from dirt, I forged Brenda out of paper and ink. Aside from this, there is only one difference between Brenda and an ordinary religious person.  In my little fiction, Brenda is deemed insane for worshipping the wrong character in the wrong story book. Brenda doesn't worship Jesus Christ.  She worships the hero of some other book—one of countless protagonists modeled on the example of Christ, maybe long-suffering Uncle Tom or perhaps the messianic Neo from the graphic novel version of The Matrix.        

Religion is a human universal, present in one form or another in all of the societies that anthropologists have visited and archaeologists have dug up. Since it is not plausible that religion just happened to develop independently in many thousands of different cultures, Homo sapiens must have already been a spiritual ape when our ancestors began streaming out of Africa.

But why did we evolve to be religious?  How did dogmatic faith in imaginary beings not diminish our ability to survive and reproduce? How could the frugal mechanisms of natural selection not have worked against religion, given the high price of religious sacrifices, rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and commandments?

Some evolutionary thinkers, including leading lights like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, focus relentlessly on the black side of religious behavior. They think that religion is the result of a tragic evolutionary glitch. Both Dennett and Dawkins view religion as a mental parasite (as Dawkins memorably put it, religion is "a virus of the mind"), and a noxious one at that.  For them, human life would be a lot better if the mental parasite of religion could simply be eradicated.  

Atheists are often dismayed that intelligent believers can entertain patently irrational beliefs. From the atheist perspective, the earth's faithful are like billions of foolish Don Quixotes jousting with windmills-all because, like Quixote, they can't see that their favorite story books are exactly that. 

But Wilson points out that "elements of religion that appear irrational and dysfunctional often make perfectly good sense when judged by the only appropriate gold standard as far as evolutionary theory is concerned-what they cause people to do." And what they generally cause people to do is to behave more decently toward members of the group (co-religionists) while vigorously asserting the group's interests against competitors.  As the German evolutionist Gustav Jager argued in 1869, religion can be seen as "a weapon in the [Darwinian] struggle for survival."

As Jager's language suggests, none of this should be construed to suggest that religion is-on the whole-a good thing.  There are good things about religion, including the way its stories bind people into more harmonious collectives. But there is an obvious dark side to religion too: the way it is so readily weaponized. Religion draws co-religionists together and drives those of different faiths apart. 

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.