Politics & Policy

Survival of the Most Pious?

The past and future of religious belief.

With his new book, New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade positions himself as a serious challenger to Steven Pinker for the title Best Living Popularizer of the Human Sciences. Wade’s 2006 book Before the Dawn was a masterly survey of current knowledge about our deep ancestry, informed by recent discoveries in genetics and archeology. (My NRO review is here.)

The topic of The Faith Instinct (Penguin, $25.95) is the natural history of religion. Darwin noted that a belief in “all-pervading spiritual agencies” is well-nigh universal among human populations. Why? Religious observances are costly in time, energy, and resources. Why has not natural selection purged out this wasteful behavior? From the point of view of species survival, is there an upside to balance or outweigh the wastefulness? If so, what is it?

Researchers — biologists, anthropologists, psychologists — have been probing the matter for a quarter century now, energized by the hope that parallel research in genetics and neurobiology will provide some hard-science underpinning for whatever answers they come up with. That is still mostly just a hope; but if we have not yet decoded religious behavior all the way down to the genome, the historical and observational evidence we have accumulated makes some theories more probably true than others. Well-arranged by a skillful writer, that evidence also makes for a fascinating read.

There are two current theories to explain the origins and persistence of religious belief. One says that religion is an accidental by-product of our extremely complicated cognitive equipment. Being able to tell when an object is possessed of volitional agency (tigers, enemies) is so vital to individual survival that the ability “slops over,” attributing agency where there is none. A tree, the sun, or a statue can then be believed to have volition and power. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom popularized this point of view in a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article (“Is God an Accident?”). Anthropologists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have presented it at book length.

The other theory is that religion is adaptive. That is, on net, human beings who have religious instincts propagate their genes more successfully than those who don’t. The best-known exponent of this point of view is biologist David Sloan Wilson, whose 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral laid out the adaptionist case for a general reader.

The adaptive approach — survival of the most pious, you might call it — has the smaller market share among researchers, mainly because it relies on natural selection working at the group level, a controversial notion long out of favor because of mathematical problems. Wilson and others have recently helped to revive group selection, so that the adaptive theory is now very much in play.

In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade signs up wholeheartedly to adaptionism, tackling some of the counterarguments presented by accidentalists like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins:

For much of history, emotions like trust and loyalty have generally grown out of a shared religion. And belief in punitive gods . . . is highly effective at getting people to cooperate for the good of society. There is every reason to suppose the cohesion thus attained would be highly adaptive in the struggle for survival against competing societies.

Wade notes in passing that Pinker and Dawkins are both strong critics of religion in general. It’s not clear, though, that atheists are necessarily attracted to accidentalism, and believers to adaptionism. David Sloan Wilson is an atheist; contrariwise, cognitive scientist Justin Barrett, a leading accidentalist, is an observant Christian.

Anchoring religious behavior in biology tells us nothing about the contents of religion, which might, or might not, be real. Vision is anchored in biology, yet light is real none the less, though the objects we “see” in dreams and hallucinations are not. The biology of religion and the content of religion are orthogonal topics, neither dependent on the other.

Any adaptive human trait or behavior is connected at one end to genetics, at the other to culture. Being able to digest cow’s milk is adaptive, but only in cattle-herding cultures. That’s why lactose intolerance is still widespread. The matter of how genetics and culture work with, and sometimes against, each other, is one we are just beginning to scratch the surface of. (Which is why the lactose-tolerance example is the one inevitably cited when people write about these topics. It is on page 281 of The Faith Instinct, and there are seven index references in Before the Dawn.)

The first task here is to try tracing developments through long history — through, that is, the 50 or 60 millennia since Homo sap. emerged from East Africa to populate the world. With lactose tolerance, the tracing is easy: Before cattle herding came up, there was none; afterwards, it soon appeared in the relevant populations, the culture at work to change the genetics.

With religion, things are much more complicated. There have been distinctive styles of worship in different periods of long history. Before the agricultural revolution of 8000 B.C., all human beings lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. Fragments of this lifestyle survived late enough that we can say confident things about it. It was very egalitarian — “fiercely” so, says Wade. (“Primitive communism,” was Karl Marx’s term.) This is a puzzle by itself, as our closest relatives, the chimps, live in hierarchical societies. Since chimp genes are known to have changed much less than ours, presumably the common chimp-human ancestor was hierarchically inclined.

So how did we get egalitarian? Wade suggests the invention of weapons (recall one meaning of the word “equalizer”), together with increased intelligence: “the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.” But then, without the authority of alpha males, how was order to be kept in the egalitarian hunter-gatherer band? How were deviants and freeloaders to be deterred? Religious belief, Wade argues, offered an answer. Supernatural agents, perhaps first suggested by dreams, could punish and reward.

The style of worship among hunter-gatherers was likewise egalitarian, with communal dancing and chanting a major component. These ceremonies sometimes lasted for weeks. Participants worked themselves up into trance states, interpreted as communication with, or possession by, supernatural agents. Some cultures used hallucinogens as a shortcut, since, as Wade notes, “dancing for hours on end was an arduous way to gain access to the supernatural.”

When settled agricultural life began, around 8000 B.C., religion changed to match the new circumstances. Ceremonies were pegged to key agricultural events — planting, harvesting — and the need for social hierarchy threw up specialist classes of priests, probably in cultural line of descent from the shamans of some hunter-gatherer societies — individuals with special talent at attaining the trance state. Religion was still tribal and polytheistic, though, and remained so through the rise of urban living and literacy.

Big polyglot empires needed universal religions, decoupled from particular tribes or places. Monotheism served the purpose best, and the genius of the Jews in establishing the first literate monotheism, around the middle of the first millennium B.C., was a key event. Judaism was tribal, not universal; but when supercharged with the modifications introduced by — mostly, probably, says Wade — Saint Paul, it was universal enough to vanquish the rather tacky Roman pantheon, and to be the foundation for medieval European civilization.

The evolution of religion was very uneven, though, with many vestigial features refusing to fall away entirely. Judaism has retained its tribal flavor; and the major feasts of modern religions are still pegged to the agricultural calendar — Passover, for example, according to Wade, once heralded the beginning of the barley festival. The priest-king principle of the earliest urban societies persists in the British monarch’s claim to be Defender of the Faith. The ecstatic dancing of hunter-gatherer observances was disapproved of by urban priesthoods of the agricultural age, but survives none the less in the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, and in the rhythmic swaying of African choirs. (See also 2 Samuel, 2.xiv, where King David “danced before the Lord with all his might.”) Religion is very conservative, as one would expect of a belief system laying claim to eternal truth.

Wade, I think, touches all bases in this survey. He is very good on the way that literate religions have of rewriting their historical origins, and the poor-to-nonexistent evidence for much of what is claimed about those origins. Jews were polytheistic before the Babylonian exile of 587 B.C., while Moses, Joshua, and the Exodus may all be fictions. Perhaps a small group of Hebrews trekked from Egypt to Canaan, but most were already there.

Though Islam came up much more recently, it too has big holes in its historicity, which bold revisionist historians have plugged with ingenious theories. Wade takes us through some of the more surprising ones. Was the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 A.D.) really an Arab Christian sect? Was the Dome of the Rock (which does not face Mecca, or anywhere) originally a church? Did Mohammad really exist? Was he, in point of fact, actually Jesus? It sounds like crackpottery, but these are serious scholars with coherent arguments. (Not all of them new. Hilaire Belloc included Islam in his book on the great Christian heresies.)

The great changes of our age — globalization, the mixing of peoples, the triumph of science, the security and comfort of welfare states — leave great numbers of us indifferent to the demands of traditional religion and skeptical toward the supernatural. Yet we are still religious creatures: Surveys in even the least-churched European nations report high levels of belief in God and the afterlife. Religion will presumably survive as long as we are recognizably human. What will it look like, though?

In a thoughtful closing chapter, Wade peers forward into the possible future of religion. He thinks that traditional religion has lost too many of its bouts against modernity and rationality, and needs some radical reworking if it is to fulfill human religious yearnings as it used to. He asks: “Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age?” If there is, can we discern the shape of whatever rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem?

Perhaps we shall dump the gods. Buddhism, after all, has no gods, at least in theory. Buddhists, though, as D. Jason Slone pointed out in Theological Incorrectness, behave uncannily like adherents of theistic religions. They pray to Lord Buddha, even though their doctrines say he does not exist — even though the entire point of their religion is that Buddha attained nonexistence! One of the odder things about religion is how little doctrine matters to believers. The founding stories of Mormonism (golden tablets, magic spectacles, ahistorical migrations) are at the high end of the preposterosity scale, and the scriptures are, as Mark Twain reported, “chloroform in print”; yet Mormonism is easily the most successful modern religion, with innumerable smart and accomplished adherents, impressive growth in numbers, and remarkably little attrition.

The various attempts to establish “ethical religions,” from Emerson’s Transcendentalism to Scientific Buddhism, have in any case fallen flat, offering only cold temples to their followers. A transformed religion, Wade tells us, must “touch all the senses and lift the mind . . . find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another.” The transformation, he says, needs to be similar in scope to the transition from hunter-gatherer religion to that of settled societies.

What may actually happen, it seems to me, will be a partial reversion to Paleolithic styles. The dissolution of the power relations that prevailed until just a generation or two ago — hierarchies of class, race, sex, age, and behavioral inclinations — has returned us to the egalitarianism of our remotest ancestors. Perhaps our religion will likewise regress.

Such a regression, if it occurs, will only be approximate. We are not now what we were then. Five hundred centuries of religious observance have undoubtedly changed our genome at least as much as did a few dozen centuries of cattle herding. We are, though, less tolerant of social hierarchy, and more mobile, than at any time since the first farming settlements, so that remote past surely holds clues to our future. Who knows? Perhaps ecstatic communal dancing will make a comeback.

– John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist and author, most recently, of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.

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