How does evolution account for religion?


Important note - this thread is not about the truth or falseness of Darwinian evolution. For the purpose of this particular discussion I assume it is true. Please keep that in mind.

My question is this. How can atheists in particular account for the incredible amount of time, energy and resources which the human race has devoted and still devotes to religious activities. In particular, back in the “formative eons” of the human race, when every calorie, every morsel, every bit of energy could mean the difference between survival and death, how could humans who evolved to maximize their survival spend so much of their various treasures on non-productive and non-survival activities? Why did evolution not wean out such tendencies long ago?


Well, first off, I do not think that evolution deals with this. Evolution is simply about random mutations and survival, not about social ideal, ethics or religion.

That said, I also have a problem with this assumption that “every calorie, every morsel, every bit of energy could mean the difference between survival and death". In the natural world, this does not seem correct at all, not every moment is spent dealing with the difference between life and death. I do not know exactly how religion evolved, but I can give you some of my thoughts on the matter:

For humans in particular, you see the advent of religion with the evolution of higher brain functions. Higher brain functions lead to a greater survivability, as humans could out-think their predators and were no longer dependent upon things like speed and strength. The evolution of higher brain functions also means that they began to notice certain things about the world around them, yet still had no ability to really understand what was going on. When they saw lightening, rain, storms or heard noises from the sky and saw the death and destruction they could wreak, they did not know that these were caused by normal, natural processes…

In the natural world, one can often find hierarchies. Communal animals are often lead by the largest or strongest one of the group, the one that is in the best position to protect them. The smaller animals in the group will try to appease this leader, hoping for the protection that can be offered. Is it unusual to think that the same can happen in primitive human societies? I would imagine that the belief in the supernatural begin as an offshoot of this. Primitive humans saw these natural processes, noticed that they had no control over them and were afraid. Positing something bigger or stronger than them that could control these natural processes gave them some measure of control: if only they could appease the voice from the sky, then they could stop the storms.

Now of course, I am not saying that religion changed from this to what we currently see overnight. Instead, it happened slowly, over the period of tens of thousands of years. By the time you get to biblical times, humans and their thought process have become more advanced. With this, the concepts of religion have also evolved and now cover everything from the beings who create the storms to the ones that sanctions wars. At no point in time do I see religious belief as disadvantageous to the ones who follow the religion. Instead, the aim of religion has always been to protect and spread the genes those who believe, often times to the destruction of those who do not. The few religions that have not been based upon the survival and reproduction of their followers have quickly died out.


Two books that deal with that from unbelievers:

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Boyer
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Dennett

Too bad I haven’t read them yet, but have them both. First one appears to be more sophisticated. And another new one I also haven’t read :smiley: So many books, so little time…

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Sagan the Pagan

Phil P


One more.


Because those tendencies obviously provide some advantage to survival. But we should get rid of religion, because it’s a threat to our survival.

…Really, this gets into evolutionary psychology, which comes across (to me at least) as rather weak. Hearing Dennett explain the origin of music is a lark. “Well, obviously at one point some caveman banged a log, and then the other cavemen liked the sound, so they kept banging logs. Eventually, you get the Beatles.” And considering the development of religion is an aspect of history and other soft sciences rather than hard sciences, it’s likely going to remain that way.


Now I wish I had taken that honors religion class last semester! But from what I can tell, it taught a lot about the “evolution” of religions, how it started out with basically pantheism and such, before it was whittled down to animism, then polytheism, and, finally, to monotheism as our brains “evolved” and got smarter, so to speak. But that’s assuming evolution is “correct”.

I do think that religion is important, far too important to get rid of, because I believe that God does indeed exist, and that Catholicism is the one true way. :angel1: There are those who believe religion is the source of all evil, but I say to you, if you don’t believe in religion, then logically you don’t believe in Satan and evil, right? :wink:


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