The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion: Part 1

Steven Pinker explores the possible reasons why religion is ubiquitous across all societies.
Do we have a “God gene” or a “God module”? I'm referring to claims that a number of you may have noticed. Believe it or not, some scientists say yes. And a number of years earlier, there were claims that the human brain is equipped with a “God module”, a subsystem of the brain shaped by evolution to cause us to have religious belief. According to surveys by ethnographers, religion is a human universal. In all human cultures, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that ritual can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods.

All cultures, you might ask? Yes, all cultures. I give you an example of a culture we're well familiar with, that of the contemporary United States. The last time I checked the figures, 25% of Americans believe in witches, 50% in ghosts, 50% in the devil, 50% believe that the Book of Genesis is literally true, 69% believe in angels, 87% believe Jesus was raised from the dead, and 96% believe in a god or a universal spirit.

A Taste For the Irrational

So what's going on? In many regards, the human mind appears to be well engineered. That is, we can see, think, move, talk, understand, and attain goals better than any robot or computer. The question is, how can a powerful taste for apparently irrational beliefs evolve? H.L. Mencken said that “the most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It's the chief occupation of humankind.” This poses an enigma to the psychologist.

There is one way in which religious belief could be an adaptation. Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed. There is a Yiddish expression: "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows." There have been other, more plausible attempts to explain religion as a biological adaptation. Even though I'm far more sympathetic to Darwinian explanations of mental life than most psychologists, I don't find any of these convincing.

On Comfort, Solidarity, and Ethics
The first is that religion gives comfort. The concepts of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, an afterlife, or just deserts, ease the pain of being a human; these comforting thoughts make us feel better. There's an element of truth to this, but it is not a legitimate adaptationist explanation, because it begs the question of why the mind should find comfort in beliefs that are false. Saying that something is so doesn't make it so, and there's no reason why it should be comforting to think it so when we have reason to believe it is not so. Compare: if you're being threatened by a menacing predator, being told that it's just a rabbit is not particularly comforting. In general, we are not that easily deluded. Why should we be in the case of religion?

The second hypothesis is that religion brings a community together. The geneticist Dean Hamer’s book "The God Gene" offered this as his Darwinian explanation of religion. Again, I think there's an element of truth in this. Religion certainly does bring a community together. It simply begs the question as to why. Why, if there is a subgoal in evolution to have people stand together to face off common enemies, would a belief in spirits, or a belief that ritual could change the future, be necessary to cement a community together? Why not just emotions like trust and loyalty and friendship and solidarity? There's no a priori reason you would expect a belief in a soul or a ritual to be a solution to the problem of how you get a bunch of organisms to cooperate.

The third spurious explanation is that religion is the source of our higher ethical yearnings. Those of you who read the book “Rock of Ages” by Steven Jay Gould, where he argued that religion and science could co-exist comfortably, are familiar with his argument: since science can't tell us what our moral values should be, we have religion. That's what religion is for, and each “magisterium” should respect the other. A big problem for this hypothesis is apparent to anyone who has read the Bible, which is a manual for rape and genocide and destruction. God tells the Israelites invading all Midianite villages, “Kill all the men, kill all the kids, kill all the old women. The young women that you find attractive, bring them back to your compound, lock them up, shave their heads, lock them in a room for 30 days till they stop crying their eyes out because you've killed their mom and dad and then take them as a second or third or fourth or fifth wife." So the Bible, contrary to what a majority of Americans apparently believe, is far from a source of higher moral values. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, gay-bashers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can happily be united in heaven.

To understand the source of moral values, we don’t have to look to religion. Psychologists have identified universal moral sentiments such as love, compassion, generosity, guilt, shame, and righteous indignation. A belief in spirits and angels needn’t have anything to do with it. And moral philosophers, such as Peter Singer who scrutinize the concept of morality, have shown that it is logically rooted in the interchangeability of one's own interests and others. The world's enduring moral systems capture in some way the notion of the interchangeability of perspectives and interests, the idea that "I am one guy among many": the golden rule, the categorical imperative, Singer's own notion of “the expanding circle”, John Rawls' “veil of ignorance”, and so on. A retributive, human-like deity meting out justice doesn't have a role in our best explanations of the logic of morality.

Religion – Adaptation or By-Product of the Human Mind?
To answer the question: “Why are Homo Sapiens so prone to religious belief?”, you first have to distinguish between traits that are adaptations, that is, products of Darwinian natural selection, and traits that are by-products of adaptations, also called spandrels or exaptations. An example: Why is our blood red? Is there some adaptive advantage to having red blood, maybe as camouflage against autumn leaves? Well, that’s unlikely. The explanation for why our blood is red is that it is adaptive to have a molecule that can carry oxygen, mainly hemoglobin, which happens to be red when it's oxygenated. So the redness of our blood is a by-product of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. The color per se was not selected for. Another non-adaptive explanation for a biological trait is genetic drift. Random stuff happens in evolution and certain traits can become fixed through sheer luck of the draw.

To distinguish between an adaptation and a by-product, first of all you have to establish that the trait is in some sense innate, for example, that it develops reliably across a range of environments and is universal across the species. That helps rule out reading, for example, as a biological adaptation. Kids don't spontaneously read unless they are taught, as opposed to spoken language, which is a plausible adaptation, because it does emerge spontaneously in all normal children in all societies.

The second criterion is that the causal effects of the trait would, on average, have improved the survival or reproduction of the bearer of that trait in an ancestral environment – the one in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history in the foraging or hunter-gatherer lifestyle that predated the relatively recent invention of agriculture and civilization.

Crucially, the advantage must be demonstrable by some independently motivated causal consequences of the putative adaptation. That is, the laws of physics or chemistry or engineering have to be sufficient to establish that the trait would be useful. The usefulness of the trait can't be invented ad hoc; if it is, you have not a legitimate evolutionary explanation but a fairy tale. The way to tell them apart is to independently motivate the usefulness of the trait. An example: via projective geometry, one can show that by combining images from two cameras or optical devices, it is possible to calculate the depth of an object from the disparity of the projections. If you write out the specs for what you need in order to compute stereoscopic depth, you find that humans and other primates seem to have exactly those specs. That similarity is a good reason to believe that human stereoscopic depth perception is an adaptation.

Our sweet tooth is yet another example. It’s not terribly adaptive now, but biochemistry has established that sugar is packed with calories, and therefore could have prevented starvation in an era where food-sources were unpredictable. That makes a sweet tooth a plausible adaptation.

In contrast, it's not clear what the adaptive function of humor is, or of music. I think the explanations of religion that I've reviewed have the same problem, namely not having an independent rationale of why that trait should, in principle, be useful. The alternative, then, is that just as the redness of blood is a by-product of other adaptations, so may our predisposition to religious belief be. A crucial corollary of the theory of evolution is that conflicts of interests among organisms, of different species or of the same species, lead to the biological equivalent of an arms race. An organism evolves clever or lethal weapons, another organism evolves even more ingenious defenses, spiraling the process. At any given stage in an arms race, a feature can be adaptive for one organism but not for its adversaries, as long as the first is overcoming the defenses of the second. That's another reason why not everything in biology is adaptive, at least not for every organism. What's adaptive for the lion is not so adaptive for the lamb.

Read part 2 of this article here.

 [This speech was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin, October 29, 2004, on receipt of “The Emperor’s New Clothes Award.”]
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