Why Religion? (II)

In the last post we saw why common explanations for religion as biological adaptations are found wanting. Pinker suggests that religion is more an accidental byproduct of adaptations, such as food taboos, sacrifice, and the reverence for one’s ancestors. The question then becomes why these adaptations are so inevitably beneficial.

Pinker distinguishes between the benefits to the producers of religion (shamans, priests, etc) and the consumers of religion (the laity). He gives five examples which benefit producers. The list, needless to say, is hardly exhaustive.

1. Ancestor worship. “If you plausibly convince other people that you’ll continue to oversee their affairs even when you’re dead and gone, that will give them incentive to treat you nicely up to the last day.” (pp 13-14)

2. Food taboos. “If you withhold a food, especially a food of animal origin, from children during a critical period, they’ll grow up grossed out at the thought of eating that food.” (p 14) This controls people by keeping them inside a coalition, and reduces the risk of defections to neighboring coalitions.

3. Rites of passage. “There’s nothing magical about the age of thirteen or the age of eighteen or any other age. It’s simply more convenient to anoint a person as an adult a particular, arbitrarily chosen day than to haggle over how mature every individual is every time he or she wants a beer.” (p 14) Or wants to have sex with adults, for that matter. Rites thus regulate maturity.

4. Sacrifice. “A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from hangers-on and parasites and free-riders. One way to test who’s genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice.” (p 14) Of course, if the sacrifice gets too costly this can backfire. Look at the classical prophets and Jesus.

5. Expertise. “If you’re the one who knows mysterious but important arcane knowledge, then other people will defer to you.” (p 14)

Religion is a byproduct of these adaptations, in the same way that the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. Religion was never selected per se, anymore than the color of our blood was; religion isn’t innately or inevitably advantageous to the human species. But the adaptations which collectively yield religion are.

As far as consumers of religion (most people) are concerned, there seem to be two main benefits as I understand Pinker’s explanation.

1. Deference. We want to defer to experts; “that’s in the very nature of expertise” (p 14). Priests and shamans are like doctors and lawyers. Faith, then, can be seen as an adaptive trait. We need faith to go under the surgical scalpel as much as we do to have mysteries explained to us. So this plays right into (5) above.

2. Technique for success. We communicate with a higher power to get things which may not be provided otherwise — recovery from serious illness, success in enterprise, victory on the battlefield, etc. “This is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they’ve exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.” (p 15) This sounds similar to the “gives comfort” idea we saw in the last post, but is more specific and explains why religion can be so comforting: it promises successful results.

Again, religion becomes the byproduct of these adaptations. I would add a third, namely the desire for immortality. Organisms, as a rule, don’t want to die, and one might say (along with 2 above) that just as people engage in acts of prayer to get things they want, they also look to an afterlife, or next life, which will keep their existence going in some way. Those satsifed with their lot in life may rise above this (like the ancient Saduccess), but they are exceptional.

It’s perhaps expecting too much of evolutionary psychology to provide all the answers to “why religion?”, but I think it’s a good start. Religion should be seen as more an accidental byproduct of other adaptations than an inevitable adaptation itself. But even with his correctives in place, it’s evident that humanity still “needs” religion more than Pinker seems to give credit for.


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