Sunday, February 3, 2013

Does Religion Serve a[n evolutionary] Purpose?

This lecture by professor Paul Bloom of Yale starts with the observation that religion serves no obvious adaptive purpose.
Naked Capitalism
Does Religion Serve a Purpose?
Yves Smith

David Sloan Wilson disagrees:
One of the great intellectual battles of modern times is between evolution and religion. Until now, they have been considered completely irreconcilable theories of origin and existence. David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral takes the radical step of joining the two, in the process proposing an evolutionary theory of religion that shakes both evolutionary biology and social theory at their foundations.

The key, argues Wilson, is to think of society as an organism, an old idea that has received new life based on recent developments in evolutionary biology. If society is an organism, can we then think of morality and religion as biologically and culturally evolved adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals? Wilson brings a variety of evidence to bear on this question, from both the biological and social sciences. From Calvinism in sixteenth-century Geneva to Balinese water temples, from hunter-gatherer societies to urban America, Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. He also includes a chapter considering forgiveness from an evolutionary perspective and concludes by discussing how all social organizations, including science, could benefit by incorporating elements of religion.

Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies. Astoundingly, Wilson shows that they might be literally correct. Intended for any educated reader, Darwin's Cathedral will change forever the way we view the relations among evolution, religion, and human society.— Publisher's description
David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

The primary purpose of religion in an evolutionary sense is as a carrier of core spirituality, which lies at the core of all religions and wisdom traditions, and resides in all as evolutionary potential. This process of self-unfolding is elaborated by Meher Baba in God Speaks Part 1 and Part 2. The short account is here.


Anonymous said...

if group selection is the highest selection level in human evolution, then patriotism (not to be confused with nationalism) is by association the lever we should be pulling. In what (religious) form this takes is up to us to determine.

Tom Hickey said...

Depends on the what one means by "group." As some point out the distinctive evolutionary characteristic of human is to increase their scope of universality. For example, Marx based his social, political and economic view on the potential for humanity to realize practically its species nature. No other species appears to be capable of that, and while humanity has done so intellectually, it has not yet done so practically other than inchoately.

David said...

It seems to me that coming to a point where such questions can be seriously asked reveals an evolution to such a thorough-going materialism that maybe the better question would be "does 'evolution' now serve a religious purpose?"

Anonymous said...

Well, truth does serve a purpose - attaining life - assuming one heeds it:

“Now therefore, O sons, listen to me,
For blessed are they who keep my ways.
“Heed instruction and be wise,
And do not neglect it.
“Blessed is the man who listens to me,
Watching daily at my gates,
Waiting at my doorposts.
For he who finds me finds life
And obtains favor from the Lord.

“But he who sins against me injures himself;
All those who hate me love death.”
Proverbs 8:32-36 [bold added]

Ralph Musgrave said...

“Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone.” What on Earth is he on about? There are hundreds of animal species which “achieve by collective action what they could alone”. Now which religion do chimpanzees, lions, wildebeests, etc adhere to: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity? I haven't seen any female chimps wearing Islamic veils or lions twiddling Buddhist prayer wheels, but I must remember to look out for this sort of thing..:-)

Tom Hickey said...

Ralph, it all depends on how one defines "religion." If one equates "religion" with contemporary normative religions at the institutional level, which are characterized by doctrine, ritual, and observance, I would agree with you, in that they resemble cargo cults. Here is a quote to the effect from the anonymous author of the medieval English Cloud of Unknowing:

"Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God Himself, not what you can get out of Him."

The Cloud of Unknowing
Translated by Clifton Wolters

But if one defines religion as do anthropologists and sociologists, then a different picture emerges. For an account of so-called primitive religion, read The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation, Houghton, 1911 by Dr. Charles Eastman {Ohiyesa).

Perennial wisdom distinguishes normative religions from the spiritual core of which normative religion is an outward expression. Normative religions as are veils that obscure the spiritual core, and they are the husk that must be stripped off to get to the kernel.

The basis of religion is spirituality, and spirituality is basically the realization that everything is interdependent because at ground all is one. That unity of being is identified with "God," although not all wisdom traditions include a conception of God. In this sense, one can be an a atheist and be a spiritual person. One can also be "religious" in the sense of Buddhism as a religion even though it is non-theistic.

The view of religion that is actually primitive in operative ideology is the view that individuals are separate and unconnected, and that subjects are separate and distinct from other subjects and the objects of the world — and if one is a believer, the deity is also separate from individual selves and things. This view leads to self-interest, self-importance, and all the other egoistic ideals, attitudes, and behaviors that the sages of all times and climes have warned against as vices, whereas the virtues all presuppose universality and interconnection. It is anti-evolutionary in emphasizing ontological individualism. Needless to say, this ontological individualism leads to methodological individualism.

The scientific conception of evolution of species is a subset of the view of the spiritual evolution found in perennial wisdom, to which I have cited sources in the links to Meher Baba in the post above.