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The Evolutionary Function of Religion

Updated on December 18, 2017
Anna Watson profile image

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

Religion and human evolution

Famed evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and proud atheist, Richard Dawkins, recently released a new book Science in the Soul in which he questions the survival value of religion from a Darwinian standpoint. In this book he compares the innate human desire for religion to the suicidal behavior in moths that leads them to flames. Moths, of course, aren’t suicidal, they base their navigation on the moon and stars. That particular evolutionary trait just happens to be dangerous in a world with modern technology. That of course is Dawkins point: religion is incompatible with modern life.

Is it though?

If a person was to look at all of life from a utilitarian standpoint, then one may conclude that everything is here for a reason. After all, evolution has no room for waste. For a gene or a trait to get passed on it must serve a purpose. Genes which serve no purpose get lost to history. We can look to our wrists to find physical evidence of this: we no longer move our wrists as we used to, and when we do we use differet muscles than we once did. This leaves at least two muscles out of the running; the palmaris longus, which helps us to flex our wrists, and the anconeus sextus which helps with elbow stabilization. Since we no longer use those muscles they are gradually disappearing. In a few hundred years or so, classrooms full of science students will be learning about how their ancestors had these two extra muscles in their wrists.
If logic dictates that all which is innate in us has a function* then one must logically conclude that religion, which is hardwired into us, also serves a purpose. Religion itself is not cultural. We know this by looking at what culture is and comparing it to the traits that are biologically hardwired in our brains. We can get a pretty good idea of culture by taking a look at the different countries throughout the word and throughout history. Culture is constantly in flux, whether it was the Chinese custom of footbinding, The British love of tea, or the American tradition of Rock and Roll, it is influenced by outside factors even as it is itself an influence. Even customs that seem set in stone have a shelf life; as evidenced by the evolving culture of western marriage, as a singular example.
While culture changes, it is not as easy to change our biological drives. Our collective fondness for dogs and music, for example, is buried deep within our brains. Both of those traits make sense; dogs helped early man survive and music is strongly tied to courtship and social harmony. It is understandable why those traits would be passed down from one generation to the next. If music and pet guardianship have a biological basis, why wouldn’t religion?

* Some readers may point to the appendix as an evolutionary holdover with no real value, however, some experts do believe that the function of the appendix is to store good bacteria, thereby giving it a clear purpose.

We can find evidence of religion as far back as our cavemen ancestors, even animals have evidenced a form of spirituality. For the capacity for religious beliefs to be passed down, it must carry with it some advantage

Biological basis of religion

The National Institute of Health and Auburn University joined forces in an attempt to understand how our brain networks affect religious beliefs. One interesting thing they found was that the brain interactions that shape the theory of mind were different among religious and irreligious people. This is interesting as the theory of mind is the ability to understand another person’s mental state; why they believe, act, or feel the way that they do. It’s this ability that allows people to interpret a god, be it a wrathful, loving, or personal God, people with a more fully developed theory of mind are more likely to be religious and see God as something other than an abstract concept.
But where did this come from and why? We can find evidence of religion as far back a our cavemen ancestors, even animals have evidenced a form of spirituality. For the capacity for religious beliefs to be passed down, it must carry with it some advantage. Many naysayers may refute that claim, but the fact is that throughout the history of the world, every culture in every corner of the globe had their own ideas about one or more gods. The advantage of such beliefs may be social order and enhanced morality, both of which would carry an obvious advantage over a culture that prizes selfishness and deceit.

Researchers have found an excess of activity in the limbic system that is associated with religious experiences.

Neurological basis for religion

By looking at the brain itself, we can find the exact location of the brain that controls religious beliefs. Researchers have found that the limbic system predisposes us towards faith in a deity. It is through the limbic system, the part of the brain under the cortex and on top of the brain stem, that we process emotions, memory, and pleasurable response, such as arousal. Researchers have found an excess of activity in the limbic system that is associated with religious experiences.

The why

Martin Luther King Jr once wrote “science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Science can tell us how our brains function and which part is activated during religious experiences. The science of archeology can tell us that humans have held religious beliefs from time immemorial. Through the investigative field of science we can learn so much. And where science can tell us how, religion picks up and tells us why.
Why are we hard wired to believe in a deity? Why does the limbic system allow for religion? The religious answer to that is clear: because a personal God wanted it that way. God could have created the universe and been done with it. He had no need to leave hints about a creator, yet He did. Like a painter signing his name to a painting, or an author penning her name to a book, God signed His name in our hearts. Or rather, in our limbic systems. God wanted us to know He's there, He wanted us to call on Him. God intended us to use our theory of mind to find and interpret His place in the universe. The marriage of science and religion can be a beautiful thing.

© 2017 Anna Watson


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