Why Religion? (I)

“You can’t write honestly about human beings if you want to be popular.” (Steven Pinker)

Steven Pinker’s article in the latest issue of The Humanist, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion” (Sept/Oct ’06, pp 10-15), explains religion as an evolutionary byproduct of other adaptations, rather than as an adaptation itself. He objects to adaptation theories on grounds that they beg the question, wrongly assuming religion to be an inevitable outcome.

Here are the common explanations for religion as biological adaptation, to which Pinker objects (see pp 11-12).

1. Religion gives comfort. But why is the mind comforted by the ineffable, intangible, or even that which is plainly false? Usually we’re comforted by things we have good reason to believe are true.

2. Religion brings community together. But why do organisms cooperate better when religion enters the picture? Why aren’t emotions like trust and loyalty and solidarity enough, as indeed they can be.

3. Religion provides a source of ethics. But why look to religion for this? Secular philosophy and atheism can give us ethics as much as religion — just as religion can be a source for unethical behavior as much as ethical.

I agree that there is nothing inevitable about religion when considered this generally, and thus should not be viewed as an adaptation. Religion is more like reading and less like spoken language. (Spoken language, as Pinker points out, emerges spontaneously, inevitably, everywhere in all societies, while reading is a byproduct of spoken language; kids don’t read spontaneously unless taught.) It is a byproduct of other adaptations which yield more concrete benefits than the general ones above. Pinker suggests some of those benefits, which we will consider in the next post.


3 thoughts on “Why Religion? (I)

  1. Do you think Pinker’s definition of religion is satisfactory? I’m wondering about the reading/speaking analogy. If religion is defined by sociologists (as rituals, common symbols, etc.) then it seems that it does emerge like language. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. Just a thought.

  2. “Burying the dead with flowers” might qualify as an adaptation, and Pinker’s point is that religion is a byproduct of adaptations like these. One must then examine the benefits that come with burying the dead reverently. See the next post in this series.

  3. I’m also troubled by the question of how <>religion<> is being defined. If one regards <>religion<> as the more-or-less cohesive cluster of values, attitudes, practices etc held by an individual and/or a community, which a sceptical outside observer would regard as without clear empirical justification (a Durkheim-like definition); then in ‘face-to-face’ societies <>religion<> does emerge like language. In our unusually impersonal society <>religion<> seems optional in a way that is not true for most historical societies. Pinker may mean by <>religion<> something more specific than this group of attitudes, something more or less similar to Christianity, but I’m bot sure.

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