Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The evolution of religion?

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While reading a current edition of New Scientist this past week, I was surprised to come across an article titled, "God's place in a rational world". Apparently at a recent conference in La Jolla a collection of top scientists gathered to discuss God. They asked the question, is there a God? As you can probably imagine the debate was a heated one, and no definite verdict was reached, but an interesting question was thrown down by "evolutionary biologist David Sloan". Sloan proposed "that humans' religious beliefs may have evolved over time, thanks to the advantages they conferred as a sort of social glue holding together groups that developed them." In other words, religion, or faith in a supernatural power, was an adaptive strategy. Sloan compares religious belief to human morals. Morality is a pervasive theme in all human populations. Although there is variation between cultures in terms of what is viewed as right or wrong, undeniably those beliefs exist. "[M]oral values", according to Sloan, are "a set of distinctly unscientific beliefs." Why should a human have rights? Why should any animal have rights for that matter? In the evolutionary race the main mantra has always been eat, survive, reproduce, yet somewhere along the line the human brain created meaning for it all. The question is: why? Rules and morals may have been a good way to reduce intraspecific competition among the members of a group. If there is a belief in an ultimate truth, and in turn consequences, would that possibly lead to less conflict?
Another possible benefit to evolving religion has been debated within the medical community for over twenty years. Does religious belief lead to better health? Live Science published an article in response to a study published in the March/ April 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine that found that frequent participation in a religious group actually increased an individuals life expectancy by several years. An article in The Frontier Post claimed that studies have linked religious belief to lowered levels of stress and of depression. Does this mean that religious belief could have conferred enough health benefits to become selected for by natural selection? We may never know for sure.
Some scientists, such as Dawkins' claim that religion is a mere byproduct of developing a large brain. In his article "Darwin's God", Robin Henig of the New York Times explains that"it was [either] because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain."
Whether religion evolved because of natural selection due to some adaptive advantage, or simply as an "extra" that came along with having a big and complex brain is yet to be understood for certain, in fact it may never be fully explained. I think, in a sense, that it should unite the evolutionists with the religious in that religious belief is something that is part of our hardwiring, whether God evolved us this way, or nature did, belief is a part of what makes us who we are as a species.


Reilly, M. (2007, November 10). God's place in a rational world. New Scientist, 17.
Henig, R. (2007, March 4). Darwin's God. The New York Times, link
Religious people live healthier life: Study. (2007, June 11). The Frontier Post. link
Britt, R. (2006, April 03). Churchgoers Live Longer. Live Science. link


Dominic B. said...

Just to re-use your question here:
Does religious belief lead to better health?

Some researcher wanted to know if prayer could help very sick people....the verdict...NO

If someone knows that people are praying for her or seems like a God listening?????