I have come to believe our best pathway forward involves religion coming to terms with scientific truths, and science coming to terms with religious wisdom. Religious activity and traditions are a universal human phenomenon. People across time and place have engaged in religion. And evolutionary development does not preserve adaptations that have no benefits for survival or further innovation. Which raises the question, what are the evolutionary benefits and values of religious activity?
Some modern critics of religion blithely mock the phenomenon without ever seriously investigating its evolutionary purposes. Evolutionary science is relatively new in the grand scheme of history, and serious interest in understanding the nature of religion from evolutionary perspectives is even newer. For decades, scientists and religionists have often battled out their differences in either/or conflicts, pitting science and religion against each other. Perhaps it was necessary for us to dis-embed ourselves from our religiousness, to some degree, and for some period of time, in order for us to see it and appreciate it from a new vantage point.
Relatively few people have pursued in-depth understandings of how religious activity may be positively understood within the history of human evolution, even despite the fact that religious organizations like the Roman Catholic Church have endorsed evolutionary science as compatible with Christian belief, just as one example. But these things do take time. And perhaps this isn’t surprising, since integrating scientific and religious modes of knowledge is a complex pursuit that exists on forefronts of our existing understandings of things. If we are to take evolutionary theory seriously then we need to take the universal phenomenon of religion seriously, and understand its positive benefits instead of simplistically writing religion off as essentially pointless superstitions.
Systems of shared beliefs, values, and practices provide a number of significant benefits, despite obvious and inherent restrictions. They help regulate social, emotional, and perceptual stability for individuals in a group by providing a fixed, constrained set of meanings, expectations, customs, norms for understanding experience and interpersonal behaviour. Without some ordered system of beliefs and values, individuals become psychologically and socially awash in the practically unrestricted meanings of objects, experiences, interactions, and situations. They drown in a sea of psychological and social chaos. Ordered belief systems protect from distressing encounters with the unknown, which is one big reason why adherents are motivated to defend and protect them—they are defending and protecting what is functionally defending and protecting their psyches and societies from being plunged into (potentially deadly) disorder. Well-functioning religions define social cultures that shape what we pay attention to and what we ignore in the practically infinite phenomena of our moment-to-moment experience of Being. As cultural animals with limited fields of perception, religions define psychological and social boundaries and goals that simultaneously protect, guide, stabilize, regulate, and unite the complex lives of individuals and groups.
Shared systems of beliefs, values, and practices, at their best, also support psychological, social, moral, and character development among individuals who voluntarily adhere to them. A complex cultural system does this in a variety of ways. It provides ritual practices and strategies for disciplining one’s perceptions, thoughts, desires, imagination, and behaviours in unison with one’s group, such as praying and mediating, studying sacred texts, performing acts of service, tithing money and resources, and more. It provides shared cultic (meaning worship) practices for members to participate in to actively, artistically, and collectively express adoration, praise, longing, and thanks towards the divine Ideal. It provides common ethical goals and ideals to live by, along with social accountability. And it preserves a supply of historically tested traditions, rules, and legendary heroic role models from past generations to be practiced, emulated, and updated for today. Forming productive, stable governments and economies also depends on establishing common group norms, rules, and ideals for guiding cooperation, competition, and trade. So well-functioning religions also serve supportive, developmental, adaptive, and productive purposes.
One way we human beings are unique is we live within stories. Individuals and group always have some sense of where they are, where they want to go, and how they intend to get there. We have an awareness of time as uniquely self-conscious creatures, which in some ways is both our blessing and our curse, and which provides us with a sense that our lives unfold in a kind of narrative journey (we don’t just instinctively live in the moment. As self-conscious creatures with highly developed memories and imaginations, we can consciously remember our past and plan for our future in rather sophisticated ways that ideally serve our adaptation). It also appears ancient tribes that created religious symbols, stories, and mythologies were able to grow into larger sizes than tribes that didn’t. Because shared stories can support social development and promote ongoing exploration and adaptation in ways that serve to bind people together in increasingly greater numbers around pursuing goals that further their common evolution. So shared religious stories provide narrative and social coherence and stability, without which people become fragmented and unbalanced, both socially and psychologically.
So it’s no wonder people usually respond harshly or irrationally when you challenge fundamental beliefs of their religion, for you are threatening to subvert a complex system of values and beliefs that functions to simultaneously stabilize their psyches, regulate their emotions, discipline their desires, and inform their aspirations; a narrative system that instils individual and group identities based on a shared understanding of the historical past, present, and future; a social system that provides accepted interpersonal boundaries, taboos, and expectations, which increases relational predictability and decreases stress; a moral system that prescribes shared ethical standards for orienting behaviour and growth; a cultural system that is familiar and organized to help adherents live cooperatively and productively; and a metaphysical system that delineates sacred, fundamental, and often half-conscious presuppositions about the essential nature of human life and experience, all of which serves to keep the (psychologically, emotionally, and socially) overwhelming and threatening chaos of encountering the absolute unknown at bay.
The same dynamics exist, to some degree, in every cohesive human group and culture, since complex human cultures function to provide psychological, emotional, historical, social, moral, political, economic, and metaphysical stability and coherence to life, for individuals and their groups, without which people will be left alone before the harshest elements of nature to suffer and die. Humans are cultural animals and religions are some of our most sophisticated cultural creations (and ones that foundationally underlie even the development of later, “secular” social/cultural/political developments). Tribes that developed religions that better fulfilled these purposes could outnumber and outlast tribes that didn’t.
How do gods fit within human evolution? God/gods are complicated entities, serving different purposes depending on the context. That said, human beings are continually bombarded and possessed by powers/forces that direct our actions and operate beyond our conscious control or influence. In polytheistic settings, gods (and angels and devils and demons, for that matter) may be functional personifications of specific powers like love or anger or sex or warmongering. And these powers (what we would perhaps think of as “psycho-social drives”) are gods because they’re eternal (meaning they’re pre-existing forces which live on forever, generation after generation) transpersonal (meaning they appear to universally affect and direct behaviours of all finite beings, from humans to animals) forces that can arbitrarily possess individuals and/or group and influence their behaviours and destinies, often beyond one’s conscious control. High gods are functional personifications of the powers and shared goals a group orients themselves towards and commonly pursues as the highest ethical ideal (and a major, monotheistic God tends to represent a hybrid of powers and ideals, such as Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Love, Peace, Justice, etc, all integrated within a single entity).
And how do revolutionary religious leaders fit within human evolution? Our most revered figures are described in stories which are told and transmitted, generation after generation, as models worthy of moral and behavioural emulation. We are rightly enamoured with charismatic individuals like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth—with people who have responded to human suffering and challenges with extraordinary courage. They are brave leaders and explorers who have charted new pathways forward through the unknown and threatening wildernesses of nature, relationships, and the human soul, even as they endure intense struggles and suffering in their pursuit of greater adaptation, liberation, and transcendence.
In the Christian theological tradition, Jesus Christ is understood to be the ultimate prophet, priest, king, and human being—the figure who has fulfilled each of these roles and superseded the existing patterns of even the most admirable past figures of his tradition, from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David. Jesus is the meta-hero, the ultimate archetype, who climactically unites the best of his heroic and archetypal predecessors into a single identity and pattern of activity. Jesus says he hasn’t come to destroy the Law and the history of his ancestors, but to fulfill it. The specular theology and mythology surrounding the figure of Christ attests to this fulfillment, as the new testament writings creatively weave together various old testament figures and themes and promises around the accomplishments of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the model, par excellence, of what it looks like to serve and pursue God—the highest ethical ideal. Thus his disciples (students) have voluntarily committed themselves to learning his teachings, following his example, and accepting his Spirit and Mind (the Life and Psychology of Christ) as their own. Members adopt a particular way of being in society and the world, a pattern which ideally serves protective, preservative, regulative, supportive, adaptive, and transformative purposes simultaneously. Any religion that fails to protect and stabilize while also supporting further exploration, adaption, and transformation is not fulfilling all of its ideal purposes for its members.
It should be no surprise that humanity’s knowledge first emerged in artistic forms of dramatic images and stories before it developed into more articulated forms of abstract propositions. Just as individuals first go through imaginative stages of psychological development as children where they learn primarily through story-form and art-form before developing capacities for more abstracted logic and objective thought, our species has collectively evolved through similar stages of development. In addition, the essentially moral concerns of religious activity (how should we live with one another?) preceded more privileged scientific concerns (what is objective nature?). For both individuals and groups, earlier stages of imaginative, dramatic, artistic, and moral/behavioural modes of knowledge provide the necessary foundations for later, more rational, scientific levels of development (which is why a parent will typically read illustrated children’s stories to their three-year-old instead of textbooks on advanced logic or mathematics or physics [unless, of course, their three-year-old is some exceptionally gifted genius. But even then, they’d probably still have to wait until the kid is at least four or five.]). This developmental process is even instantiated in the historical development of the brain: more ancient emotional structures developed prior to more rational, cortical structures, and neurobiological and psychology health depend upon integrating, balancing, and coordinating their functions.
Psychological, neurobiological, and cultural development illustrate the necessity of both transcending and including what has been learned and gained in previous levels of development. We become disintegrated and disoriented, individually and collectively, when we attempt to transcend and reject our previous stage of development, upon which our new stage has necessarily been built. This is partly what has been happening when so-called modern, rational, enlightened westerners have decided our religious heritage is nothing but silly superstitions that can be safely rejected and left behind in our ancient past. These people take for granted the pivotal role religious activity played in the survival and evolutional of their own ancestral lineage, and still plays at deep, tacit levels of psychological and social functioning, even for the “modern” human being, just as emotions still play a significant (and more powerful) role in the neurobiological functioning and behaviour of a “rational” being.
Healthy religions (and societies and governments, for that matter) achieve some optimal balance between preserving order from the past and openly exploring and evolving in the present in the face of new challenges, experiences, and information. The is the perennial battle between conservatives (who want to conserve what’s been built) and liberals (who want to change what’s been built). At their worst, conservatives want to preserve what’s bad with what’s good, whereas liberals may want to discard both the good with the bad in the name of innovation. In other words, conservatives sometimes want to keep the baby and the bathwater, whereas liberal want to toss out both.
At their worst, conservatives have no respect for the need to change and little appreciation of how present demands and circumstances should update traditions of the past. They tend to under-appreciate our need to venture out beyond the boundaries of historic traditions, learn new information, and update our current practices to meet the demands of the present and future. At their worst, liberals have no respect for the past and little appreciation of how the accumulated practices and wisdom of our ancestors should inform our present endeavours. They tend to under-appreciate our need for rules, customs, and traditions to order our lives, and how cultural systems decrease collective/individual stress and promote social and psychological integration and stability. So they often take for granted how ridiculously ordered and predictable our societies have become thanks to our inherited cultural systems of shared beliefs, values, and customs. At their worst, partisan/fundamentalist conservatives and liberals each end up with half-stories and half-strategies for addressing the full complexity of human life and experience.
But at their best, conservatives work to preserve the best from the past and liberals work to incorporate the best new information from the present into inherited systems in ways that update and revivify old traditions for present and future generations. At their best, conservatives and liberals (whether in religious or political spheres) recognize they need each other, and they see greater value and possibilities in working together instead of against each other. This is certainly no coincidence since evolutionary development conserves the best of what’s evolved from the past and adaptively incorporates the best of present evolution in response to current and future challenges. The same kind of balance between the extremes of rigid order (the conservative mistake) and chaotic disorder (the liberal mistake) must be struck for healthy psychological functioning in individuals and healthy social functioning in societies. Every individual and group needs some ordered system of beliefs and values as well as a steady flow of new input and information in order to achieve wellbeing, without which we either drown in a sea of chaotic stimuli or ossify in a walled-off desert of hyper-rigidity.
Many of these ideas have been significantly influenced by the work of Jordan Peterson from his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in a much more rigorous, detailed explanation of this evolutionary understanding of religion.