Is Religion merely a successful product of Evolution?


More or less, non-theists generally agree that religion is an invention of the human psych – that the whole concept of God and spirituality are simply ingrained traits within our genes (and hence our minds) which have survived because they held some sort of advantage in our natural selection.

Their principal argument: Religion has been common to all peoples throughout human history.

On the other side, religious people of all stripes generally agree that it is only *because of some higher power *that man has always been *seeking *spiritual fulfillment, and (in the case of Christianity) this has culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Their principal argument: Religion has been common to all peoples throughout human history. (once again)

So, given that I am neither a scientist nor a theologian, I wish to invite others to discuss this latent topic in the open. :o

NOTE: It has already been established that there IS a certain spiritual element to the human mind, leaving only the question of WHY?
For evidence of this, please see:


Science is on the side of religion. Physicists say that if the properties of the basic elements such as hydrogen and helium were off even by the slightest bit, the universe would be vastly different. They also say that the events that formed our solar system as well as our planet were off by the slightest second, life would probably not be existant. Point being, the conditions for life were perfect. Chance had nothing to do with it, because every solar and extra-solar planet that we’ve discovered so far have no life.


Interesting to speculate on, and ultimately says nothing about whether or not any religion in particular is true.

A religious person might respond that God has placed within us a longing or a desire or a sense of something beyond us. Call it evolution, attribute it to a gene, or call it something else, whatever.

As a scientist, I might humbly note that it is all speculative until I see some experimental evidence. Locate a particular gene or group of genes that is correlated in some way with religious belief. This could perhaps be done with some extensive data mining, although interpretation would be very dicey. To be conclusive, you would have to demonstrate that by knocking out the specific genes, you suppress religious belief. A very nice experimental system would allow you to switch off and on gene expression at will, with corresponding change in religious behavior. Conducting such an experiment is probably beyond the capability of today’s science, unless it is governed by an extremely simple gene, which most complex behaviors are not.

Without some experimental evidence, and without even a way to conduct such an experiment, it is perhaps more like a religious belief to suggest that religious belief is something genetic selected for by evolution.


As usual scientists have discovered physical facts and as usual have arrived at the wrong conclusion. The idea that communion with God is hardwired into our very physical being is to me one of the best evidences of a Creator.

Catechism of the Catholic Church §27

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.


What about those who seem hardwired not to believe at all? Did God simply neglect them or is there a genetic defect or other change that eliminated this element from their psychic?

:newidea: On another note, what if a group of adament atheists were made to reproduce with one another (you know what I mean) and then have their children raise themselves in isolation on a remote island and continue on without interference for several generations. Would religious belief *still *manifest itself in such an experiment. Of course, there would be a litany of ethical, legal, and timespan issues involved, but if only we could! :rolleyes:


Due to the intervention of some higher power.
Due to its success within our genes.

why can’t it be both?

27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that** one may well call man a religious being: **

surely we were evolved for religion
that’s the way we were made


You might clarify what you mean by “spiritual.” Many atheists, and all materialists, do NOT accept an “established” spiritual element to humanity, or to the universe in general.

Of course, that leaves them with the massive problem of how a piece of meat with some electrical impulses in it can become self-aware and start to theorize about truth and falsity. However, that’s a different problem. :slight_smile:


Because to say it is from both is to imply that religion is within our genome, and if something is within in our DNA, it may become mutated or altogether eliminated, leaving the person…well…Godless! Now, why would God allow someone to exist who lacks the inherent ability to believe in him? Right off the bat that person would be doomed to Hell for something he couldn’t control! That is why the two are most certainly incompatible.

Also, I wonder…

Do babies believe in God? At what age do their brains develop enough to have spiritual extincts? Does such spirituality only arise from exposure to adults and their teachings? (Can anwer these questions :o)


As a rule true beliefs are more advantageous than false ones. So though our capacity of logic is “merely” a survival mechanism, that doesn’t mean that we cannot do maths, or science, or tease out facts from errors, with a high degree of reliability.

We know that there are structures in the brain which are involved in spiritual experiences, which isn’t quite the same as saying that they cause such experiences. These would surely have evolved through a normal process of natural selection. However exactly what the selective pressure was is anyone’s bet.


It is a basic part of our emotional make up
Our behaviors are way too complex for an individual to be born without it.

We may all have different capacities (just like in all other things) but why is this surprising?


I thought that this blog gives some good ideas here that are relevant to this thread

You can post comments, and I assume ask questions, near the bottom of the page if you are looking for further clarification.


What’s this webpage supposed to clarify? I read through it, and it is more a vague argument for theistic evolution (which I do readily believe in support though) than whether or not spirituality/religious belief is based on an actual trasncendal being(s) and not some mere genetic survival mechanism.

Of course I appreciate the effort, but this article hardly helped at all in addressing the *actual *question. Given that no one has responded in a while, I would hate for this dialogue to die out before it really began, especially since the anwer to this question is an absolute hallmark in the debate over religion today.

We may all have different capacities (just like in all other things) but why is this surprising?

What is surprising is that some people *could *have a genetic predispotion to reject the existence of God simply because they lack the capacity. If this were actually real and confirmed, it would be the nail-in-the-coffin for religion, since how could God allow this to happen.

It would be like having a geneticist going up to the parents right after their baby is born and saying: “I’m sorry, but you’re baby’s belief-gene is mutated, and likewise, she has a 60% chance of burning in the fires of eternal damnation when she dies.”

So long as it is a merciful God who has guided our evolution, a situation like the above would be ludicrous. Otherwise, if religious belief were simply an aspect of our genome, then we should just think of atheists as people “suffering” from a mutation.


And the existence of blind people refutes the theory that there is such a thing as light?
God does allow innocent children to be spiritually damaged. Any teacher in a tough inner city school will tell you that. Why He allows evil is, ultimately, a mystery.


Sure blind people may not be able understand what it is like to see light or that light even eixsts, but you can’t blame them for that. Under Christian teaching though, not seeing actual light won’t guarantee you an eternity in the fiery depths of hell. However, not seeing the figurative “light of God” and thus believing in Him WILL, and, once again: if it’s a genetic defect, we can’t blame 'em, either.

Spiritually damaged inner-city schools??? I’VE ATTENDED AN INNER-CITY SCHOOL! The more-or-less morally/spiritually depraved students I’ve gone to school with weren’t born that way! (at least I hope not) If you looked around at their environment, you’d see why they act as they do. Plus: unbelief or immorality such as *this *may be cured through the environment. If unbelief were genetic, the whole story would be different, for even if this “disability” were corrected so that the child *could *have faith, what does this mean for all the genetic-unbelievers before genetics came to be known? Did they all go to hell because they couldn’t see a PhD geneticist?

Such a “disease” as genetic atheism would guarantee a person hell from the moment of conception, and God would know it! I don’t believe in darn predestination. Either spirituality/belief is not a genetic thing or Christian teaching would be unabashedly cruel and self-defeating!!! :mad:


This is getting close to genetic determinism, which is difficult to accept for complex behaviors. E.g. there may be a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, but ultimately it’s still up to the individual to choose to drink or not to drink.


I suppose this is as good of an answer as I’ll get for the “predisposition” issue. Thanks!

However, I would like to get back on topic and address whether belief in God/spirituality came to us by purely natural mechanisms, and the reason I want to stimulate debate on this topic is because it is a very real, very latent aspect of the opinions of both atheists and theists. It’s probably the cornerstone in the whole issue!


Well, it depends on what you mean by “purely natural” mechanisms. I guess my answer could be both yes and no, depending. In other words, belief in God is a response to the “natural law” implanted in human nature by God, but recognizable by the use of natural reason itself.

So is belief in God “purely natural”? Yes—it is a response to the natural law within all of us, available to all by the use of natural reason. But if you mean by “purely natural” mechanisms simply materialist brain functions, then belief in God may CORRELATE with those brain functions, but, as has been often and profitably pointed out, correlation does not equal causation. My answer in that case would be no.

The natural law, in other words, is recognizable by reason because it is susceptible to the intellective reflection of the supernatural soul. It is not a result of purely materialist mechanisms.


I’m not sure that religion would be a factor favored by evolution. It seems that most forms of religious expression are based on altruistic behaviors that are detrimental to the individual’s evolutionary finesse. Priests and religious never reproduce, Muslims blow themselves up for Allah, people fast, sometimes hurt themselves to offer it up, give their money away, risk death by ministering to the sick, and etc. It seems to me that if religion was the result of evolution it would be more self-benefiting. Although some argue that altruistic behavior helps the human species at a species level (like bees and ants) it seems to me that to apply such arguments to complex creatures gives evolution quite a bit of foresight.



Daniel C Dennett has argued that religious belief (adopting the idea from Dawkins of the meme or virus-like idea) evolved mainly to ensure and enforce the social cohesiveness in early humans. This gave us (along with the evolution of language and conciousness) an advantage which then through natural selection spread very rapidly through the entire species, and helped us become masters of the planet.

The idea is a very interesting one and goes some way to explaining why humankind seems to be a ‘religious’ being, though I feel the account is somewhat overly reductive and Dennett, like Dawkins, is rather hostile to religion. I think a better notion is to see that once human beings evolved the ability to reason (that is, to be aware of their own concious awareness of the world) then the possibility of the transcendant opened up. Like the ability to make art or music and tools, religious belief seems to coincide with the evolution of conciousness and language, and I would see religious belief and experience as a possibility given to us by the evolution of concious awareness of the world.


If conciousness (and thus religion) is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective in any way, why has it not evolved many times in the past? What made grassland-dwelling hominids any different from the billions of organisms that preceded them?

Considering the incredible success of the human species, I find it hard to believe that we are the first organisms in c. 500 million years to have the beneficial mutation.

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