The variation in religion and our evolutionary history

As my post on intelligence was quite successful, I thought perhaps I would offer up something similar on religion, since that’s a topic where I have been giving opinions based on fragments of my own views for some time. The point in this post is to unpack the general set of ideas and frameworks that I take for granted and are tacitly operating with as background priors.

If you have been reading me back more than ten years ago, you know that there was a period between 2005 and 2008 when I wrote a fair amount about religion. This was the several years when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was at the center of the culture, and near enough after 9/11 that there remained a fresh interest in Islamic radicalism and religious fundamentalism (e.g., The End of Faith). I wrote enough about the topic that I even got invited to a conference about religion and evolution, and received books from publishers on religion and evolution.

But that period cooled off because at a certain point my views were changing only on the margin, and stabilized into a form which conditions my ideas in a stable state. The distance between me in 2018 and me in 2008 on this topic is one to two orders of magnitude smaller than the distance between me in 2008 and me in 2004.

Instead of defining religion a priori, I will describe my perception of the dynamics and phenomena in terms of scale and history (small to large, earlier to later).

First, let’s start at the atomic unit of the cultural phenomenon, the mind. By the mind, I don’t just mean conscious, reflective, and rational mind. I mean our deeper psychological impulses. Our intuitions and instincts. One of the major insights of cognitive science over the past few generations is that the mind is not a blank slate and that certain ‘innate ideas’ likely exist. Ultimately these ideas can be framed in an evolutionary context. That is, our intuitions emerge due to selection pressures over thousands of years, and these intuitions serve as the raw material for cultural variation.

This took some time and reading for me to understand. A major reason is that I’ve been secular in my worldview since I was a small child, and my species atypical atheism first manifested itself self-consciously when I was eight years old. I believe that this is due to some psychological abnormalities which predisposed me to scientific naturalism. Even before I was self-consciously atheistic, I recall finding religious services mind-numbingly boring and oppressive. Religion to me was a set of irrational and ancient systems of belief and practice. To understand Christianity, read the Bible, to understand Islam, read the Koran. To understand Confucianism, read the Analects.

These perceptions and beliefs might be modified by reading the Church Fathers, or the Hadith, or Zhu Xi. But ultimately religion was a system of belief and practice codified, explicated, and able to be examined in a reflective and rational manner. Religion was a book.

This was a profound misunderstanding on my part, informed by my abnormal psychology. A work such as Atheism: the Case Against God might convince a certain type of fedora-wearing nerd, but it does not get at the lived experience of most people, which is not about the ontological argument or the argument from design, at least in a philosophical sense. For most humans, the “way of reason” is nothing more than a superficial gesture overlain atop deeper, more primordial intuitions and inferences.

If religion is reduced to a book, a revelation, and reflection on the Ground of Being, then religion is only a few thousand years old.

This is clearly false, so we need to drill down more deeply into the mental architecture of religious intuition. Books such as In Gods We Trust, Religion Explained, and Theological Incorrectness present a cognitive anthropological framework which outlines how intuitions about supernatural forces and beings emerge. A simple root trigger from an evolutionary perspective is that hyperactive agency detection is probably adaptive in terms of avoiding danger in most environments. This means that one’s mental software may often see agency, and meaning, in patterns in the world around us which are entirely impersonal and natural. And yet on occasion, the software may pick up a “true positive,” and so justify its vigilance through avoidance of danger.

Better safe than sorry.

Agency detection, social intelligence, and our tendency to theorize causes for aspects of the universe through storytelling results in the recurrent phenomenon of myth-making and animism among “small-scale societies.” One might say that these “primitive peoples” might only have “superstition,” but I will avoid these pejorative. They are simply different.

Small-scale societies show how cognitive intuitions are universally evoked by environmental stimuli to generate myths, legends, and tales of gods and demons. Though no one has ever seen a god, the reality is that collective human intuitions are strong that they do exist, and those intuitions are not arbitrary.

But in many small-scale societies beliefs about the supernatural are not a matter of individual theory and hypothesis. Rather, they are part of the broader landscape of social cognition, storytelling, and collective comprehension of the clan or tribe’s place in the universe. For a theologian, religion can be reduced to individual reflection, while for a mystic it can be captured in a contemplative reverie. But for the vast majority of humans, religion is a communal, collective, group activity.

If psychological intuitions are the atoms of religious phenomenon, then small-scale group beliefs and practices are macromolecules. Conventional human intuitions which span the tribe are such that fantastic narratives about godlike beings being causal agents are entirely plausible to many individuals within the tribe. But as a cultural phenomenon religion does not simply consist of a set of theories about unseen agents in the universe. In general, religion involves acting upon, or toward, those agents. Rituals of communication and propitiation. Collective rites to signal group commitment to particular gods to gain favor, or avoid wrath.

These group activities, bound together by common belief, do not simply let off psychological steam. They may actually be functionally important in generating group cohesion. Though small-scale societies often have recurrent motifs common across many cultures, such as the trickster god, or a distant sky-god, the differences allow for cultural variation and demarcation of ingroup vs. outgroup dynamics. The very concept of “tribal god” illustrates the totemic power of ethnically delimited supernaturalism. Ecstatic collective rituals before the battle can induce greater emotional arousal if done to accompanying music and dedicated to a collective religious belief.

Supernatural intuitions, individual theories of god and the cosmos, may arise from adaptively beneficial psychologies on the level of an individual, but they also serve as the raw material for cultural phenotypes. Gods serve as the hooks and foci for group rituals, which reduce tension and suspicion within the group and increase salient different between groups. In Big Gods the authors suggest that progressively more expansive god-like beings became associated with progressively more complex societies. Though religious intuitions did not evolve to serve the functional adaptiveness of groups of humans, they were easily co-opted toward that purpose. Gods reinforce good behavior by serving as “eyes” and “ears” within the tribe, and they give a moral justification for the exclusion of and attacks upon outsiders. In other words, functionally, supernatural agents on the group-level increase internal cohesion by dampening free-riding, and make more salient cultural differences between groups, increasing competition.

To a great extent, this was the situation during the first few thousand years of human “civilization.” The gods of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Hittites were tribal gods writ-large. In some cases, godhead was granted to human rulers, such as the Pharoah of Egypt. During this period of antiquity, the gods witnessed oaths between polities of the scale that we would term nation-states today, but it seems fictive kinship between “brother” kings was just as important. Religion was tightly correlated with ethnicity, and the spread of a particular ethnic identity was associated with a particular cult pantheon. Fusions between peoples might entail fusions between pantheons. The ancient Greek gods seem to be a mix of Indo-European and non-Indo-European gods, reflecting the composite nature of the Greeks themselves.

When Richard Dawkins alludes to Bronze Age sky gods, he is referring specifically to El of the Mountain, also called Baal, and etymologically the ancestor of Allah. But for anyone reading the Hebrew Bible, and then the New Testament, one can see that El transforms a great deal over time. El evolves. The Abrahamic God in its modern form is really a creature of the Iron Age, not the Bronze Age. More precisely, the Axial Age.

We have now traversed most of human evolutionary history and scaled up the unit of analysis from the individual to the tribe, and now beyond the tribe. To nations, and collections of nations. In the period between ~1000 BC and ~700 AD, most of the religions which we term “higher religions” emerged. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Buddhism, Manichaeanism, Confucianism, Daoism, etc. Obviously, they vary in their details, but they are united by features which separate them from the tribal religions of the Bronze Age. First, most of these religions integrate some sort of philosophy into their belief systems. Second, the ethical component becomes more essential, integrated into the identity of the gods or supernatural beings or prophets, as well as incumbent upon believers. Third, these belief systems tend to be explicitly supra-tribal, portable, and potentially universalistic.

To a great extent, my own intuition is that they emerged when they did because of the “problem of empire.” How do you integrate a multiethnic group of societies into a single polity? By creating a commonwealth of belief. To take the Western case, in particular, a parochial tribal god of the Jews was transmuted into a universal singular God of all peoples. This occurred in a stepwise fashion, involving both Jews and non-Jews. But by the end of this process, the Jewish tribal monopoly on the affections of the West Semitic sky god was broken, and a new universal God of ethics became available to all people.

It is at this point that the rationalization and systematization of religion began. As philosophy swallowed religion whole at the commanding heights, it began to be deployed as a tool on a scale heretofore unimaginable. Though obviously there were shamans who had particular religious skills in the pre-modern world, now a whole class of religious professionals emerged to interpret religion for the people and the rulers. This class explained to everyone what religion was truly about, and recorded down what religion was truly about.

To a great extent, this class of religious professionals unintentionally were engaged in a radical propagandistic agenda which masked the primordial passions which drove the religious fervor of the masses. The periodic explosion of millenarian cults and populist devotional movements are indications that elite control, co-option, and constriction, had its limitations. Religion as an instrument of social control has been so typical over human history as to be beneath comment, but on occasion, the social enthusiasm is bottom-up rather than top-down. Like hydroelectric power, cultural elites harness religious motive force with the complex machinery of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but periodically the raw energy of river overwhelms the dam and gouges out a new gorge.

Within the tribal context conformity to group beliefs and practices came naturally. From the bottom on up. But with the rise of massive empires, the imposition of uniform norms came from above, because it was not plainly “natural” that Britons, Syrians, and Iberians, should worship a god that was incarnate as a Judaean carpenter. Despite the nominal Christianity of Romans and post-Romans in the 6th century, diverse local religious practices persisted and were integrated into Christianity through the practice of regional saints, who often assimilated aspects of local deities (e.g., Brigit).

Where the general supernatural intuitions that arise in the belief in gods is universal across peoples, specific instantiations vary a great deal. The period before the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire can be thought of as a context where individual group dynamics could operate in a competitive “marketplace” of ideas in an explicit sense. One can then frame Christianity’s success in this framework to one of its “value” to “consumers.” One needs to be careful about taking this sort of economistic model too far, but it is perhaps correct to suggest that this is the situation in much of the modern world, where religious monopolies are no longer in force across most nations.

The reality is that many societies are going through secularization right now. The United States has gone through two major waves since World War II. Though overall rates of religious affiliation have dropped, so have rates of belief in God. But, it is important to note that the former has dropped faster than the latter. My own contention from the framework I outlined above is that intuitions about the existence of God are due to individual evolved psychology, while religious affiliation and identity exist in the matrix of sociology and culture. Obviously social and cultural identity and affinity can dissolve in a way that individual identity does not.

When nonreligious people evaluate the behavior of religious people it is important to keep in mind the multiple layers of the religious phenomenon. Religious intuition about the existence of God may derive from psychological disposition, not the arguments of the Summa Theologica. But collective religious identity is likely more important in dictating attitudes and beliefs about particular points of doctrine or practice through the process of social cognition. Mass disaffiliation, as has occurred in Ireland since the year 2000, may signal a broad collective consensus more than aggregate individual decisions.

In the final summation, religious phenomena are simply the snapping together of myriad cognitive impulses and social processes. Ecstatic dance is entirely separable from religion, but it is often a feature of devotional cults. Similarly, solemn rituals commemorating life transitions and ruptures are separable from a supernatural and metaphysical scaffold, but more often than not these phenomena are bound together. When speaking of “political religion,” one is acknowledging the reality that many elements of conventional religious phenomena can be peeled off and reintegrated in an ideological-political framework. Though most political religions explicitly avoid supernatural commitments, the tendency toward cultic veneration of leaders of these ideologies the world over indicates the tendency of some psycho-social phenomena to always “flow downhill.”

When speaking of “religion”, it is always important to remember that it is a complex set of beliefs and practices, explicit and implicit.

24 thoughts on “The variation in religion and our evolutionary history

  1. > “The reality is that many societies are going through secularization right now.”
    On a high enough abstraction at individual level, I don’t think individual can be truly non-religious, or atheist, for the reason you lay out in here article, which is thousands of years of selection/evolution towards it. They’re just replacing the nominal religion to another, informal one. Some aware of it, some not. I adhere to same scientific naturalism, having never believed in God(s), but there’s definitely religious aspects to that too, and some really take it to extremes where it is clearly visible that it operates functionally like a religion.

  2. …but it seems fictive kingship between “brother” kings was just as important…

    Is ‘kingship’ a typo for ‘kinship’?

    I’d like to ask about the ‘psychological abnormality’ you mention, but feel this might be too personal for you to go into. If you feel inclined, I’d appreciate learning more about this, how it affects your views and what you see of it in other atheists. Any negative aspects you perceive?

  3. It would be interesting to see a post with your thoughts on the idea that there is a significant religious component to modern Progressivism — i.e., the idea that a belief system can be devoid of any reference to the supernatural, yet can still involve a strong intuitive sense of the sacred, and can still function socially and psychologically as religion, even if it never refers to itself as such.

  4. “Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe.” – Whitehead

    “Man was born to pain, as surely as the sparks fly upward” -Job

  5. I am sceptical about many of the points made here.

    First I doubt the central tenet that religion is somehow innate, rather it seems that it emerges from group dynamics, many of the mechanics we think of as characteristic of religion are found in groups that have nothing to do with supernatural belief.

    You could say that these are due to wetware developed for religion, but to me it appears likelier that religion is just hitchhiking on our much older societal instincts.

    Second, I find the hard line you draw between the religion of the intellectuals and the masses tenuous, everyone has their moments of intellectual curiosity and presumably religious authorities were usually the ones with answers even before the rise of supranational religions. The same way I doubt that most religious intellectuals are cold to the pathos offered by religious ceremonies and aesthetics.

    On this note, I find the influence of traditional religions on Christianity severely overstated. In the 21st century (and already from 19th and probably earlier) we have a too narrow conception of what Christianity should be and what it was and consider everything falling outside of that to be contamination with heathern religions. Many of these elements are probably earnest attempts at implementing Christian teachings by poorly informed folks or innovations coming from a purely Christian milieu.

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  6. I am sceptical about many of the points made here.

    it’s like you lack the comprehension to read what i wrote. “You could say that these are due to wetware developed for religion, but to me it appears likelier that religion is just hitchhiking on our much older societal instincts.” this is very close to exactly what i say at length. though if you think the adaptive value is zero of the hitchhiking perhaps we disagree there.

    The same way I doubt that most religious intellectuals are cold to the pathos offered by religious ceremonies and aesthetics.

    i didn’t say any of this. don’t be a mind reader.

    no idea what your last paragraph means.

    also, have you read any of the books above?

  7. i.e., the idea that a belief system can be devoid of any reference to the supernatural, yet can still involve a strong intuitive sense of the sacred, and can still function socially and psychologically as religion, even if it never refers to itself as such.

    that’s why i made the allusion to political religion. if religion is conceived of as the snapping together of numerous modules, some of those modules can be pulled out or rearranged to construct other phenomena. the similarities between some aspects of religion and sporting events or political rallies are not coincidental, but functions of common constituent building blocks.

  8. If you feel inclined, I’d appreciate learning more about this, how it affects your views and what you see of it in other atheists. Any negative aspects you perceive?

    i’m unintentionally rude and disagreeable. i don’t see that much agency in the world. not as scared of dark as i should be. the disagreeability means i don’t socially conform like most ppl who are lower in agency detection.

  9. though if you think the adaptive value is zero of the hitchhiking perhaps we disagree there.
    Yes, this is exactly what I meant, and I posit that it is a fact of sociology and not individual psychology.

    For a theologian, religion can be reduced to individual reflection
    This might not be “cold to pathos”, but it does look like an uneccessarily hyperrationalistic image of a theologist.

    no idea what your last paragraph means.
    It is referring to “diverse local religious practices persisted and were integrated into Christianity through the practice of regional saints, who often assimilated aspects of local deities”, which I believe is an overstated phenomenon. We are too eager to discover traces of our pagan past in our legends and fables dating to the medieval period and I think we falsify history in the process too often.

    also, have you read any of the books above?
    Give me a break man, I’m still sloughing through Principles of Population Genetics.

    Besides, I think my scientism is humble enough that I don’t need to read more books on the rationality of religion.

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  10. …i don’t see that much agency in the world. not as scared of dark as i should be…

    Resisting the urge to quiz you mercilessly, as I doubt you’d put up with it. One more question, please.

    No fear of ghosts/tigers staring at your back in the night?

  11. No fear of ghosts/tigers staring at your back in the night?

    uh, no.

    i’m not that weird. just saying that my intuitive atheism almost certainly derives from personality ticks. never had to convince myself god didn’t exist. just didn’t ever believe.

  12. that’s why i made the allusion to political religion.

    I did notice the allusion; my suggestion is that a post devoted entirely to the idea of contemporary political religion would be interesting, if you feel you have something to say at that length. I’d find it interesting anyway.

  13. “i don’t see that much agency in the world. not as scared of dark as i should be.”

    A sort of congenital analgesia in terms of omnipresent agency in the world? As a tail of distribution it is surely a brave approach in every kind of social system. Democratic and liberal societies seem to be more tolerant of such behaviours.
    Btw, do you fear the eschatological narrative of anthropogenic climate catastrophe so widespread in the media?

  14. I think its also funny but understandable how those who often succeeded the bronze religions took great pains to paint the other post-bronze age religions as behind one step.

    The idea that political ideologies overlap in some of the mental and social wiring is humbling… unfortunately, I think people only appreciate it in groups other than their own, much like our post-bronze age ancestors.

  15. never had to convince myself god didn’t exist. just didn’t ever believe

    You missed a mental food-fight that was anxiety ladened, gut-wrenching and ontologically confounding.

  16. “the idea of contemporary political religion”

    We make here the demonstration thereof:

    An idea/theory is considered to be very well-established when it continually demonstrates predictive power.

    One can easily predict that ~40% of this blog’s readership will have an immediate, anti-empirical, amygdyla-juiced, faith-threat, reason-be-damned “cognitive-chain religionistic-reaction module” response to the following quote and link:

    “Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting G.O.P. tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/opinion/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-tax-policy-dance.html

    Q.E.D.

  17. Re: abnormal/unusual psychological profile being linked to a weak religious sense / supernatural intuition: I’m similar to Razib in that I never had very strong religious intuitions, despite being raised in a strict Catholic family. I realized I was an unbeliever around age 12, once it really sunk in that there were other religions with believers just as ardent. (I.e., once I went to public middle school instead of catholic elementary school).

    I also have a brother who’s severely mentally disabled, on the autism spectrum. (Atypical autism, so not like Rain Main, but still autism, FWIW.) Flash forward a few decades and of my two children, one is also on the autism spectrum (though more highly functional than my brother).

    Simon Baron-Cohen has theorized that a component of autism is a kind of “mind-blindness” or weak theory of mind. Maybe a kind of HyPO-active agency detector. I’ve wondered, since my son’s diagnosis, if I myself may share some of that mind-blindness (or mind-opaqueness) that my brother and son deal with, and maybe that’s why religion never “took” with me, despite being steeped in it during childhood.

    Now, maybe not, who knows. But the strong strain of autism in my family, coupled with my very weak intuitions about the supernatural, put in the context of the Boyer/Atran framework where supernatural/religious notions spring forth from the mind unaided by theology, makes me wonder.

  18. How do you decide what to bold? I always assumed that it was a summary for people skimming. It could be for some kind of emphasis for nuance, but it never made sense to me as such. Do you think about the conflict between these goals? In particular, it seems dangerous to bold a sentence you’re about to repudiate:

    But ultimately religion was a system of belief and practice codified, explicated, and able to be examined in a reflective and rational manner.

  19. “Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting G.O.P. tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.”

    this is just false. donor class + politicians. rank in file republicans are far more economically centrist.

  20. I love sciences and have no trouble believing in theoretical physics and concepts such as sub atomic particles, quantum mechanics, string theory, and dark matter. Some of these concepts have been proven, but long after scientists first imagined them, and believed in them, based simply on theoretical reasoning. Obviously enough, we can’t use sciences to proof the existence of God, however, we could still use the power of reasoning in a scientific manner by keeping an open mind to all possible explanations!!!
    There is certain truth well hidden in domain of mysticism and religion, however, traditional religions being so deeply entangled with their own ideologies, dogmas and doctrine that they impose even greater limitations in terms of searching for the truth.
    By breaking away from traditional ways of religion and applying power of scientific reasoning should allow us for a better realization of the idea of an incomprehensible God, in my opinion.

  21. a component of autism is a kind of “mind-blindness”

    Because I am a faithful Catholic, I have a relatively large number of children. They run the gamut in terms of personalities. Mr. Khan wrote of being unintentionally disagreeable above. That made me think of one of my children who is somewhat lacking, compared to the others among my kids, in perceiving and understanding other people’s emotions. He can be described as “unintentionally agreeable” at times.

    He is conscientious and extraordinarily organized and is very much a rule-follower. He is also hyper-rational (and off the charts in visuo-spatial IQ). So he won’t do bad things because 1) they are morally wrong and would offend God (as has been taught) and 2) they would bring negative consequences. But not out of empathy for others. He is not concerned much with the feelings of others. So to some people, he has come off like an asshole, even though he isn’t, indeed he is very virtuous – it’s just that the emotions of others just don’t register with him. But, because he is hyper-rational and intelligent, he has learned to feign consideration for the sake of “social harmony.” But in reality, his actions are powerfully governed by his internal and innate sense of what is right and wrong, rather than social construction of the same.

    He is well-liked by authority figures (priests, coaches, instructors, etc.), but is not popular with other parents or peers. Interestingly, even though he is not a great animal lover, animals respond to, and obey, him well. He is probably the best dog-handler and horse-rider in the family.

    His personality is, in this regard, diametrically opposed to that of one of his siblings. The latter is hyper-empathetic. She is profoundly in touch with other people’s emotions and overreacts to them (she will cry if someone else is hurt). She is genuinely considerate, and is therefore very much popular with other parents as a friend for their children. She is also very sensitive to social cues (not surprisingly, she has a very high verbal IQ).

    As regards religious faith, I’ve found that this son is quite Pharisaical in his approach to religion (as I wrote, a rule-follower) meanwhile the other child is much more “spirit-oriented.”

  22. A bit late to the party here, but:

    ” a broad collective consensus more than aggregate individual decisions.”

    What is the difference between collective consensus and aggregate individual decisions? My assumption is that collective consensus is what we call aggregate individual decisions that lean towards one side. What am I missing?

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