Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?

This is of course intended to be a provocative essay. My recent posts have tended to let my readership off lightly. But it seems to me to be an appropriate time to stir the pot again!

Those of you that have had the stamina to read my postings over recent years will probably have a reasonable understanding of where I stand on religion. Not to put too fine a point to it, I believe that Humankind has a need to develop an understanding of spirituality. However the mainstream religions seem to me to have short-changed us.

Most human beings are only familiar with the religion of their particular culture, their family or their geographical location which came to them as an accident on birth. So, in many ways our beliefs have been determined for us.

There are many competing belief systems, most of which claim they have unique knowledge and often suggest they have the only access to a deity which as a result has provided a unique but certain pathway to paradise, life after death, Nirvana or whatever that somehow will resolve our existential angst.

I suppose for we sceptics this seems such a random process. If we accept that there is a unique pathway to paradise (choose your own desired outcome), and that pathway is provided by one of these religions, how unfair it seems that someone might be able to access this desirable outcome merely by an accident of birth. If Christianity provides the solution and I was unfortunately born in Kabul, how fair is that? If Islam provides the solution and I was born in one of the Southern States of United States then I would also be excluded. If, as we are assured by the proponents of these religions, God is just, you would have thought He/She would have given equal access to all.

But let us have a closer look at religion and its role.

In my essay last week we saw that at least for eusocial animals such as human beings our evolutionary fitness was enhanced by:

  1. Our individual fitness, and
  2. The fitness of our particular group.

While writing that essay it occurred to me that perhaps religion has served a number of purposes.

The first purpose is one that I have written extensively about. Religion for many of us helps fulfil our spiritual needs. These are the needs we have for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It is an essential need and none of us will feel satisfied unless it is met to some degree.

But following on from last week’s essay it doesn’t take much contemplation to come to an understanding that religion has provided one of the prime reasons that groups cohere together. In aiding group formation, loyalty, and commonality of purpose religions must have helped to promote group fitness which in turn assisted evolutionary progress.

As Edward O Wilson has written, “There is every good reason to explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.”

History links religion inexorably with tribalism. Religions teach that their adherents are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions and as a result from other tribes. Initially then religion would have been propagated as something that gave a unique advantage to a particular tribe or ethnic group. (If you have difficulty in accepting this just read the Old Testament!)

As an aside, I can remember vaguely in my youth hearing a comedy sketch about the “One Hundred Thousand Year Old Man” or some such title. The story featured a human being that had been frozen in antiquity and miraculously restored to life. (I know some people who have been figuratively frozen in antiquity but that is not what I meant!)

An interviewer keen to know what it was like to live in the antique past began to question him.

“Where did you live?” he asked.

“Well of course we lived in a cave.”

“And your whole tribe lived there?”


“And did you have symbols affirming your identity?”

“Of course – we had our flag and our national anthem.”

“Wow, that’s impressive. Can you still remember the words of your national anthem?”

“Certainly. You don’t forget your national anthem.”

“How did it go? Can you sing it for me?”

“Of course.”

He clears his throat and then loudly sings, “You can all go to hell except for those in cave 86!

And it is easy to argue that religion served a similar parochial service. It might also be argued that the illogical nature of religion is not a disadvantage. If proponents have come to believe something seemingly illogical, miraculous or just plain bizarre they probably have an even greater vested interest in banding together to drown the doubts that logic might uncover. In this way adherents reinforce the privileged position of believers creating group cohesion and thus providing an evolutionary advantage.

Of course as the body of believers in a particular religion increase in number it becomes more difficult to enforce uniformity of belief. This has occurred in most of the major religions. Christianity was split between Catholicism and Protestantism and even these subdivisions were further subdivided into various denominations whose beliefs to an outsider seem only to differ in miniscule ways. Islam similarly split between the Sunnis, Shia and Sufis among others. Once established each of these subdivisions begins to take on the nature of its own tribe, forming its own collective, reinforcing its own belief system, and repelling heretics.


The formation, preservation and often the growth of religious sects has been evidenced all over the world among humans. It is reasonable to assume that something so ubiquitous must have conferred an evolutionary benefit. It seems likely this benefit arose from the social coherence that such belief systems initially encouraged.

Indications of spiritual beliefs first occur in the late Paleolithic era where it seems people began to reflect on their own mortality. The earliest known burial sites appeared about 95,000 years ago. Then under a collection of priests, prophets and shaman often with the assistance of hallucinogenic drugs or physical practices that led to trances and visions religious sects arose on every continent on earth.

The dilemma we now face is that the religions that were so successful in making our tribes coherent and robust have become dangerous not because of the unity that they have imparted to our tribes but because of the divisions they create for our species. It is time to put aside our tribal gods and their priests and shamans in favour of a more universal spirituality.

6 Replies to “Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?”

  1. In my continuing search, I have at times felt quite exasperated when I see people divide and conflict over various issues. In some cases this has been based on lack of information. In others, it would be hard to classify as anything other than bigotry.

    I could be trivial and start with Beta vs VHS, but only to make the point that this conflict is ubiquitous.

    Move on to some more meaty issues like DDT, Y2K and Cholesterol.

    At the top of the scale we have Anthropogenic Global Warming and Religion. I am not sure yet which will waste more money or cause more death and destruction.

    I read today that 20% of the US adult population still think that the sun orbits the earth. Perhaps my opening statement about information was incorrect. Even with the right information at our disposal, we find it hard to make the right decisions about things that matter. Only time for one example: Stem Cells.

  2. Ted, You might be right… I agree with most of your blog, but not sure whether you answered the question “Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?” (Most likely because I am currently reading Dawkin’s “The Blind Watchmaker” having read a few of his books and seen the Horizon tv show about 5 years ago). Recently listened to a great podcast on “Religion for Atheists” on ABC RN with author Alain de Botton, this gave me a whole new perspective as an athiest and my interaction with religious believers. I do not think religion is an evolutionary adaption for the same reason that you identified that religions are only inherited as a result of the random geographical birthplace, as opposed to physical genetic evolution. However, I acknowledge that I am an engineer not a biologist and therefore may not be fully conversant with the “adaption” aspects of evolution. Cheers, Blake

  3. The ultimate in ultraism is to die for your community or family. From an evolutionary perspective it would seem that this can only happen for the indirect benefit of our genes. It is the survival of our race or our family line rather than our personal set of genes that counts here. Or is it? To analyse this further, in cultures where war and death was an everyday part of life you generally find that male children are prized more greatly than females and females are excluded from the ultimate in altruistic practices. They don’t go to war. This supports evolutionary theory as women can produce relatively few offspring in their life as opposed to a male who can father hundreds. A 15 year old warrior can become a martyr and still have several offspring. This was quite normal in the past particularly when marrying age was 13 or 14. There is even an argument I think that a good warrior produced many more offspring than a good farmer on average. Rape was an acceptable part of war. So in this instance the selfish gene is still at work. Ultraism in the form or dying for your community or family could be a cover for the best and strongest warriors spreading their line wide and far. It is still the survival of the fittest.

    In this environment religion provides the infrastructure to assist in the evolutionary process. It assists the ultimate “death by order” situation. You can’t order men to their death without some sort of belief in something beyond that death. Every army in the past few thousand years has marched with its priests as an integral part and we still do it today. War, religion and evolution they are all very tightly linked. The question though, is this link now counterproductive to the evolution of our species? My opinion is, it probably is but I doubt my reasons are the same as yours Ted. Altruistic practices of the past resulted in the strongest and smartest of society passing more of their genes on. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Today in the “civilised” world this is not happening to anywhere near the same extent but we still have religion and through this and other in built human instincts from our evolutionary past we still have ultraism. Now however it is more about pooling the wealth of society to support the needy; the sick, the weak, the elderly. This seems to be the ultimate in humanity and what truly separates us from the animals. It is what makes us human. I would argue though that it is not what makes our species strong. I’ll give one simple example. Is it possible that through community funded IVF programs our species could evolve to the point where it can not successfully reproduce naturally?

    In raising this topic it may seem I am opposed to some altruistic practices. This is not the case. I very much favour ultraism. I was born by caesarean section so probably would not even be writing this without the existence of ultraism. It does not diminish the facts though; physically our species may well be becoming weaker as a result of ultraism in its current form. On the other hand the evolution of our minds has exploded in the past few hundred years. Our understanding of the world and our control of that world is staggering. We now even believe we can control and adjust the climate of our planet. Ultraism has contributed enormously to this evolution, but it is not the same as what Darwin was talking about. This is group consciousness evolution and I feel it is far more relevant to our future than Darwinian evolution. As our species evolves physically weaker this group consciousness evolution may well be essential for our survival. We are perhaps heading to a point where no one can survive independently from the group. In this environment the danger is a breakdown of the group would then result in the extinction of our species or at least a very large part of it in as little as one generation. If I had to put money on it I think I would back religion as the most likely catalyst for such a breakdown. The war on terror will go down in history as a holy war.

  4. What great comments! I appreciate your taking the time to conjure up such thoughtful responses.

    I think they stand by themselves without need for further comment from me. However I might make just one comment on Blake’s response.

    Whilst we acquire our particular religion from our historic geographical circumstances, the fact that that happened ubiquitously all over the world would indicate a genetic disposition in Mankind to pursue religion. If as I have argued religion helps with group cohesion, and consequently enhances group “fitness” this would lead to such genes being passed on by those with such religious tendencies at the expense of those not so disposed. In this regard Blake I think it well may be an “evolutionary adaptation”!

  5. Religions separate, spiritually joins together. Religions inoculate against spirituality. Spirituality is the mystery ‘baby’ in the religious bathwater. The Greek word for mystery (and the apostle Paul – the mystic – not the religious reinvention, used the word more than a dozen times in writings attributed to him) is μυστήριον and it is interesting that this word is derived from the word μυέω which literally means “shutting the eyes and mouth”. In other words, the mystery, of which the ‘spiritual mind’ is able to arrive at as gnosis (knowledge) is not something that can be seen with literal eyes, or directly spoken of or described in literal terms; in the same general way that the qualia or “experience of” the beauty of a flower can be ‘known’ but not put into words or made into a ‘belief’ that can be transmitted to another who has not themselves had such an experience. And that is why ‘spiritual ideas’ are communicated through story and metaphor that can only be understood by another who has become ‘aware’ of the deeper meaning through their own personal experience.

    It seems to me that the so-called ‘facts’ of the empirical sciences (I say, ‘so called’ because such ‘facts’ seem to be in a constant state of review), and the so-called ‘facts’ of religious belief systems arise from the same evolutionary drive. Both are evolutionarily driven attempts to preserve that so-called ‘life’ identified by – and as – the egoic mind (i.e., separated ‘body-based’ ‘observed’ local mental activity). I say “so-called ‘life’” here to indicate that the dictionary definition of life as “self animating matter” does not explain the real ‘mystery’ of life itself. Most people, if asked “what is the opposite of ‘death’”, would answer ‘life’. However, does it not make much more sense to answer ‘birth’ as the opposite of death, and that ‘life’ as such precedes birth, or even conception (for whoever heard of a ‘dead’ egg and/or a ‘dead’ sperm getting together to start ‘life’!

    ‘Facts’ and ‘beliefs’ – whether they be religious or scientific – come and go and are almost never agreed upon, but spiritual gnosis has remained a ‘constant’ for as long as history has been recorded. Furthermore the gnostic mysteries transcend religious, national, and philosophical boundaries. An enlightened mind can read the stories of the Upanishads, the stories and poetry of the Sufi mystics, the stories and metaphors of the Christian and pre-Christian traditions, the stories and sayings of the Buddha, etc and come to the same ‘gnosis’ from any of them.

    The central theme of all esoteric spirituality is the notion of ‘undivided reality and undivided Life’ at the higher dimensional level of the ‘Knower’ as distinct from the reductionist world of the merely ‘perceived’, and hence conflict between ‘mystics’ only occurs when they ‘forget’ the meaning of ‘mystery’ and attempt to turn ‘gnosis’ into a ‘belief system’ and imagine that it can therefore be attacked and in need of defence. All war is an attempt to defend ‘my facts’ or ‘my beliefs’ against those of another. True mystics – who are as certain of their gnosis as any person is certain of the beauty they experience of a sunset, or the smell of a rose – never need to convince others of their gnosis before they can experience its Life sustaining power. They can literally ‘bet their Life on it’ without the need for any other visible support. Of course – like the escaped prisoner in Plato’s cave allegory, if he were to return to the cave tell his fellow prisoners of what he had discovered about a ‘greater reality’ than they had ever been able to see from the perspective of being chained facing the ‘shadows’ at the back of the cave – mystics who attempt convince non-mystics of ‘their reality’ are likely to suffer the same fate, i.e., the ‘impossible story’ of the one who escapes ‘shadow land’ would so enrage them that they would attempt to kill him! [See

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