Scientists who disagree: is religion an aberration or an adaptation?

July 26, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

For many scientists who study it, religion should be placed into one of two camps: 1) religion is an aberration, a mental virus; or 2) religion is an adaptation–that religion enhanced the survival of Believers.  A well-written article by Robin Marantz Henig explores this issue in the New York Times.  The title is “HeavenBound: a Scientific Exploration of How We Have Come to Believe in God.” Henig sums up the alternatives by reference to blood.  A trait might be “adaptive,” like the ability of blood cells to transport oxygen.  On the other hand, a trait might be simply a byproduct, such as the “redness” of blood.

Is blood prominent because it’s red or because it actually carries oxygen?

Several notable scientists and philosophers lead the charge from the first camp (that religion is a byproduct).  One of them is Richard Dawkins, who argues that “religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident.”  Others falling into this camp include Sam Harris, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett. These believers in religion as a “byproduct” would also include Stephen Jay Gould, who proposed the use of the term “spandrel” to describe traits that have no adaptive value of their own.

If religion is a byproduct or a “spandrel,” of what is it a byproduct or “spandrel” of?  Psychologists have looked carefully at several candidates: agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

We see agents everywhere, it turns out, even in inanimate objects.  The byproduct argument is that seeing agency is more adaptive as a general rule.  “If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you’re still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.”

The second candidate is causal reasoning, which we also see everywhere, even when the phenomenon is random.  We have a hard time dealing with the possibility that things just happen, including claims of supernatural events.  “Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.”

A third candidate is “theory of mind.”  Synonyms for this mental module include “intentional stance” and “social cognition.”  Another synonym is “folk psychology.”  Whatever it is called, this mental module “allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker.”  The theory of mind is so pervasive because it is so important to our social functioning.  It allows us to intuit the existence of minds that we cannot see or feel.  This opens the door to the belief in minds that are unconnected to bodies. It opens the door to beliefs in souls and gods.

These three mental module candidates set us up to believe in what Pascal Boyer found: ubiquitous examples of “minimally counterintuitive” believes.  Religious folks don’t believe in just anything at all.  If it gets too bizarre, it will be rejected by religious believers.  On the other hand, if it’s just a bit of a stretch, our mental modules kick in and adopt it.  Therefore, we believe in an invisible gods and gods who know everything.  On the other hand, we don’t have religions that believe in ice cream cones that can dance. That’s just too much

Henig reviews literature showing that the fear of death is at the heart of almost every religion.  Death is a grim certainty, and religion is there to offer hope and solace.  We are susceptible to such beliefs, because of something Henig describes well:

A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds . . . so it’s natural for it to continue much as before and after the other person’s death.  It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based in so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive.

The second major way scientist think of religion is that it is not so much an aberration as an adaptation, an activity that increases the likelihood of survival.  Prominent among these adaptationist thinkers is David Sloan Wilson:

My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic . . . religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.

How would “group selection” work?  Religious sentiments,

some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living.  The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

Richard Sosis argues that “rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion’s core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group.”  Indeed, experiments have shown that religious communes are more cooperative than secular communes.

Then again, the best success might belong to those groups that are actually mixtures of people who are secular and people who are religious believers.   Henig quotes Wilson on this point:

What seems to be an adversarial relationship between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.

This article was originally published in March, 2007.  It is detailed and carefully substantiated with references to scientists who fall into each of the major camps.  I highly recommend it if this issue of the interplay between religion and evolution is of interest to you.

After you finish reading Henig’s article, consider where you stand on this issue.  Is religion an aberration or an adaptation?


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I tend toward the idea of an adaptation. The adoption of a common believe system by the individuals helps to form a bonding to the social group. The group becomes stronger than the sum of its constituents.

    Human beings are curious by nature. This may be a part of the innovative processes that allows us to adapt our environment to our needs. We have a need to know. Unfortunately, there are many unknowable things. We have a tendency, perhaps as a survival tactic, to fear the unknown, so we have an aversion to accepting that we can't know everyting.

    Faith is the answer to the unknowable questions of the universe. Faith protects us from fear. Faith gives us a sense of security.

    Some people have faith in their religious beliefs. Others have faith in the discipline of the scientific method. Many have faith in their political beliefs.

    Faith is about trusting in your beliefs.

    Religion claims to answer all the unknowable questions. This allows most people to put aside their fear of the unknown, by accepting the answers provided by their religious mythology. However, when that mythology is threatened, the believers are threatened as well, and they will fight for their beliefs, because accepting the unknown is worse for them.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    I would beware of lumping Scott Atran together with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Unlike the latter two, Atran has actually done empirical research into religious belief and the motivations of suicide bombers.

    Scott Atran is pretty critical of Harris and other participants in the Beyond Belief Conference:

    and in this discussion at the

  3. Ben says:

    It was genuinely alarming to encounter Ziauddin Sardar's whitewash of Islam in the pages of your journal ('Beyond the troubled relationship' Nature 448, 131–133; 2007). Here, as elsewhere, Nature's coverage of religion has been unfailingly tactful — to the point of obscurantism.

    In his Commentary, Sardar seems to accept, at face value, the claim that Islam constitutes an "intrinsically rational world view". Perhaps there are occasions where public intellectuals must proclaim the teachings of Islam to be perfectly in harmony with scientific naturalism. But let us not do so, just yet, in the world's foremost scientific journal.

    Under the basic teachings of Islam, the Koran cannot be challenged or contradicted, being the perfect word of the creator of the Universe. To speak of the compatibility of science and Islam in 2007 is rather like speaking of the compatibility of science and Christianity in the year 1633, just as Galileo was being forced, under threat of death, to recant his understanding of the Earth's motion.

    An Editorial announcing the publication of Francis Collins's book, The Language of God ('Building bridges' Nature 442, 110; doi:10.1038/442110a 2006) represents another instance of high-minded squeamishness in addressing the incompatibility of faith and reason. Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, for engaging "with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs".

    But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ: "On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains… the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

    What does the "mode of thought" displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins's efforts "moving" and "laudable", commending him for building a "bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands."

    At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

    There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

  4. Stacy Kennedy says:

    @Erich: "After you finish reading Henig’s article, consider where you stand on this issue. Is religion an aberration or an adaptation?"

    I vote, both. It could have begun as a byproduct, and stuck around because it had adaptive function.

    And I don't see why we'd need to be reductive about it and think that ONE of these "mental modules" must be the sole source of religion.

    I can imagine the human brain resembling the cognition of the other great apes (as we currently understand it): pretty damn smart, but limited, and then blossoming for some reason (eating cooked food?) Agency, causal reasoning, and ToM (maybe together with increased capacity for abstract thinking and imagination?) would have had as byproducts all sorts of cognitive mistakes–and sparked interesting speculations–some of which turned out to be adaptive.

    BTW I find the agency argument pretty compelling. Seems like it must be the oldest and most important of the cognitive tendencies listed above. It's quite basic; I've read that most animals can distinguish quickly between random movement and the movement of an agent, and they do it without having a ToM! It's obviously better to err on the side of caution, and be a bit too quick to assign agency to that rustle in the bushes: if it turns out to have been a random breeze, your heart rate will quickly subside to normal levels and no harm done! This primitive and surely vitally important tendency must have had gotten all sorts of exercise when we grew smart enough to recognize the existence of things we could not see and imagine what else might be Out There.

    I'll bet religion turns out to be pretty interconnected with language and storytelling, too…it's just too darn complex and multifunctional a phenomenon to be reduced to either/or!

  5. Stacy Kennedy says:

    Re: cooked food and sudden brain development–I meant to include this link in the above post but forgot.

  6. I, too, have been researching the byproduct vs adaptation of religion argument. One issue that no one seems to address is the (lack of) empirical evidence for non-human, non-adaptive byproducts. Despite all the academics who presume the validity of the non-adaptive or functionless byproduct as a legitimate option to explain religion (you cite many of them elsewhere), there is a valid question whether there really is such a thing as a non-adaptive byproduct to be found in the scientific literature.

    One of the few articles I could find is Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels (lead author David Buss). In it he says, “Hypotheses about functionless by-products must meet rigorous scientific standards that include a functional analysis of the original adaptations responsible for producing the functionless by-products and the existing human cognitive and motivational mechanisms responsible for the co-opting. Without this specification, the mere assertion that this or that characteristic is an exaptation encounters the same problem…leveled against adaptationists — the telling of ‘just-so stories.’” (p. 542) Based on this criteria, Buss concludes “we could not find a single example of an empirical discovery made about humans as a result of using the concepts of exaptations or spandrels.” (p. 545) And that’s just humans. In his article Buss discusses examples of non-humans byproducts, but none are non-adaptive or else are completely irrelevant to religion.

    This situation is so bizarre that I can’t bring myself to believe that religion as byproduct is completely concocted from a fallacious postulate. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. The non-adaptation byproduct emperor is naked, and no one points this out. So bottom line, I’m asking as a sanity check: Do you know of anything in the peer-reviewed literature citing specific examples of non-human, non-adaptive byproducts? Thanks.

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