Science and Religion: Why Does Religion Exist?

…maybe…

I’ll come out and say it. I’m an atheist. Those who have been reading this blog for quite some time probably won’t be surprised by this, but I’ve avoided bringing it up before for one simple reason.

The word atheism is riddled with implications.

Perhaps the strongest implication is that an atheist has to believe something is fundamentally wrong with religion. I do have my criticisms, particularly when faith goes so far that it actually causes people to dismiss evidence.

That said, I think that belief in things without evidence is a fundamentally human trait, and one that likely won’t go anywhere any time soon. There’s a case to be made that faith of this kind is important, maybe even necessary.

About a month ago, I decided I wanted to know what the latest scientific literature had to say about the subject. Here is what I found.

Is Religion Adaptive?

The idea that religion is an evolutionary byproduct is a popular one among scholars of cognitive science. Most reject the notion that religion has been selected for by evolution, instead arguing that it is the result of structural constraints. But the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science recently released an article critiquing this model.

In a survival setting, believing that something isn’t true when it actually is can prove fatal. But believing something is true, even if it isn’t, is nowhere near as dangerous.

One of the most commonly cited explanations is the bias toward false positives. In a survival setting, believing that something isn’t true when it actually is can prove fatal. But believing something is true, even if it isn’t, is nowhere near as dangerous. In fact, believing in something without strong evidence could save your life or lead you to something beneficial.

While the bias toward false positives is a real and measurable aspect of human behavior, the article points out a very real problem with how this relates to religion. I think the following snippet is very revealing:

To establish that the HADD [Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device] causes belief in supernatural agents, we need an explanation of how and why we come to attribute supernatural rather than natural agency. We also need an explanation of how and why people continue to believe in the existence of supernatural agents. The HADD hypothesis may explain why we tend to infer agency when we hear rustling in the grass, but it does not account for belief in the ongoing existence of the agents that we (mis)attribute. In cases of ordinary agency, we are able to correct our initial attributions: we hear rustling in the grass and turn around expecting to be met by an agent, but when we fail to see an agent and instead observe wind moving the grass around, we typically correct our initial overattribution (Barrett [2004], pp. 40–2). In contrast, it seems that attributions of supernatural agents are highly resilient and rarely corrected for. This is not a knockdown case against a HADD-based explanation of religion, as its proponents may be able to fill in the explanatory gaps that we have identified. But advocates of byproduct explanations need to do the work required to demonstrate a credible causal connection between a module and its putative byproduct.

In other words, we usually correct false positives pretty easily. But when the false positive involves something supernatural, most of us hang onto it pretty tightly. Why we do this isn’t something that is explained by the current model. The fact that we don’t “correct” for beliefs in supernatural causes suggests that these beliefs are actually adaptive, or at least were to our ancestors.

The fact that we don’t “correct” for beliefs in supernatural causes suggests that these beliefs are actually adaptive, or at least were to our ancestors.

The article then goes on to point out how religion has been linked with improved reproductive fitness in various contexts. Religious groups tend to last longer than non-religious ones. They produce more offspring, are more internally cooperative, and encourage prosocial behavior.

None of this should be taken as evidence that religion is inherently good. Adaptiveness shouldn’t be equated with correctness, since even rape and murder can be adaptive in various contexts. It does mean, however, there is growing evidence to suggest that religion is not a “mistake” of evolution.

Religion and Self-Esteem

A strong link has been established between religion and self-esteem. Bad science takes this association at face value, and jumps to the conclusion that religion causes high self-esteem. Of course, studying the causal relationships in human behavior is difficult. You can’t just take two otherwise identical human beings and control every aspect of their environment in order to reach a conclusion about what is causing what.

Thankfully, in early February, Psychological Science released a study that probed this relationship on a large scale. The study involved information from 187,957 people from eleven different European countries.

Their theory was that individuals had higher self-esteem not because of something inherent about religion, but because religiosity was highly respected by the people around them.

The huge sample size caught my attention, but it was the cultural examination that I found very interesting. Their theory was that individuals had higher self-esteem not because of something inherent about religion, but because religiosity was highly respected by the people around them.

The study found, unsurprisingly, that there was a moderate correlation between religiosity and self-esteem, both on a personal and social level. But when they regressed social self-esteem on personal religiosity, country-level religiosity, and their cross-level intersection, they discovered that country level-religiosity mattered a great deal. The more religious the country, the more helpful it was for a person’s self-esteem if they were religious. These results were replicated for personal self-esteem.

But the most surprising results came from non-religious Sweden. In that country, religion had absolutely no influence on self-esteem.

But the most surprising results came from non-religious Sweden. In that country, religion had absolutely no influence on self-esteem.

These results suggest that, if religion has indeed been selected for by evolution, it may have had more to do with our interpersonal relationships than our personal sense of satisfaction. Based on these results, there appears to be something intrinsically cultural about religion.

Religion and Health

The link between religiosity and improved health is well established, but the reasons why are less established. In January of 2012, the Social and Personality Psychology Compass summarized the state of research on the subject, and came to an interesting conclusion.

They found that the overall result of most studies was that religiosity is associated with a 25 percent improvement in health. They suspect that this may be a conservative estimate, since most of the studies weren’t designed to measure the effects of religiosity specifically.

The central question of the article was why disadvantaged groups seem to benefit more from religiosity than the well-off do.

The central question of the article was why disadvantaged groups seem to benefit more from religiosity than the well-off do. Their perspective centered on the theoretical assumptions.

Most of the research assumed what is called a “hedonic” perspective. This was the assumption that religion increased pleasure and reduced pain. It made people happier and less likely to feel sad. There was just one problem with this.

The people who benefited the most from religion, the socially and economically disadvantaged groups, were the least happy.

The people who benefited the most from religion, the socially and economically disadvantaged groups, were the least happy.

The conclusion of the article was that religion doesn’t offer its health benefits through increased happiness. Instead, its benefits can only be understood from what is called a “eudaimonic” perspective. This is the perspective that religion gives people a sense of empowerment.

…religion doesn’t make people feel happier, it makes them feel in control of their lives.

In other words, religion doesn’t make people feel happier, it makes them feel in control of their lives. This helps improve their sense of self-control, which in turn gives them more control over their health choices.

From this perspective, it makes sense that disadvantaged groups benefit more from religion than those who are already doing quite well. Those who aren’t in a disadvantaged group already have a sense of control over their own lives.

Unanswered Questions

The science of religion may be even more murky than the science of the brain. As an emotionally charged subject, it’s difficult to approach it objectively, regardless of the religious beliefs of the researchers.

The questions of where religion came from, how it helps us, and how it can hurt us, are far from answered. Sorting out cause and effect is an incredibly difficult process, and conclusions at this point should never be taken at face value.

While evidence is growing that religion does not exist by accident, the exact reasons why it exists are still a subject of fierce debate.

While evidence is growing that religion does not exist by accident, the exact reasons why it exists are still a subject of fierce debate. Is it a parasitic institution that has evolved strictly for its own benefit, or is it a tool that helps the disadvantaged cope with the lack of control that they feel over their lives? Is it built into the structure of our brains, or is it a cultural construction? Can humanity persist without some form of spirituality? These questions don’t yet have answers, but they are important questions to ask.

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  • Peter

    I really enjoyed this article, thanks for writing it!

    I quite like the whole false positives bias spin, it’s a neat theory but I’m not convinced that it’s as very large factor. I think that religion’s role as a binding agent of social and cultural unity, and thus in furthering the survival of a given society, has been by far the most important factor (as you’ve described).

    What do you think about the adaptive nature of superstition (or magical thinking) and its relation to the development of religion? Could religion simply be an add-on to superstition with the added benefit of promoting a deep level of socio-cultural cohesion?

  • Anonymous

    I’m currently reading a facinating book called “A People’s History of The World” by Chris Harman. In it he posits that: 1) around 10,000 yrs ago nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down into villages b/c food became so abundant. Long distance travel became unnecessary.
    2) serious droughts occurred, and they were forced to either go back to a nomadic lifestyle they had left generations ago, or develop more sophisticated cultivating techniques (horticulture).
    3)They chose the latter
    4)Were so successful they created ever bigger surpluses of foods.
    5)Had to create a new social class (priests) to protect said surpluses. In case of droughts, attacks from other peoples, etc.
    6)Religion was used to justify wealth gap between the few priests protecting the surplus and the masses who toiled the land to create the surplus.
    There’s a lot more to it but I don’t wanna go on forever. Just read the book!

  • Ssammoh

    Obviously theism is true. How would a human invent a God? And there is evidence for monotheism. I remember hearing about it.

  • http://trendingsideways.com Carter

    @Ssammoh: I’m not one of those atheists who likes to rub it in people’s faces. Your beliefs are your own and, provided your faith doesn’t block you off from empirical evidence, I wouldn’t suggest you change anything.

    That said, it’s entirely possible for humans to invent the CONCEPT of a god, in the same way that they can invent the concept of a centaur. In fact, provided you are religious, you must believe that all of the gods that people believe in, other than your own, are made up.

  • Adolf Erdmann

    Can anyone clearly define religion. To me, religion is believing in something we cannot fully understand but we have been indoctrinated to accept it. Lack of evidence is not proof that something does not exist. Let me illustrate that. Einstein believed that nothing could move faster than the speed of light. His theory was based on the Michelson Morley experiment which many people believe that it was a failed experiment. So, because this experiment could not prove what it set out to do, Einstein had proof that nothing could move faster than the speed of light.

    Most people who believe Einstein’s theories to be correct, actually do not understand them at all. Therefore, one might say that Einsteinism is a form of religion. The laser gyro used in modern aircraft was at first considered to violate Einstein’s theories, but then after some adjustments to Einstein’s theories it was accepted. The same holds true for the Darwin theories, they seem to get minor adjustments occasionally. Darwin does not offer any proof that the theory of evolution is correct. It might be an interesting book, but it can hardly pass for science, because no parts of his theory can actually substantiated by tests or experiments. So again, Darwinism is a form of religion whether we like it or not.

    Let me simply put it this way; no one can claim that God does not exist because we have no proof that he does exist. Lack of evidence is no proof of anything, it is simply lack of evidence.

    Why don’t we use our time for real science instead of discussions that lead nowhere.
    And by the way, check out these websites and get back to me.

    http://www.gsjournal.net/old/physics/erdmann.pdf
    http://www.gsjournal.net/old/physics/erdmann2.pdf

  • Buddy Calyx

    The best thing to do to free your mind of all the religion nonsense is to ingest some DMT, problem solved, you will see that we are all God, because we are all connected intrinsically to the whole of the universe let alone just Earth.

    There is always a simple solution to most problems and this one is just a case of re-education.

    If they sprayed the middle east with DMT instead of Bombs, folk down that way would realize what a terrible mistake has been made over the last 2000 years or so and stop their mindless murdering. The same goes for lost world leaders they need to be shown the way as well, the poor souls.

    Now before anyone jumps on me and bash’s me with a bible, just remember in that rough guide for the universe (which is 2000 years out of date), the God mentioned in the guide created everything on the planet for a reason and DMT is there for the wake up call.

    Forget scientists evaluations and quantum theory’s, cos thats what they are just theory’s.
    There are not the words or the Math on this planet to try and explain what really goes on in other Dimensions that directly effect ours. It is meant to be a mystery and not to be worked out.
    Take the electron slit experiment and put that into the scale of the universe, it is an equation that will never be fathomed.
    Plus entities in other dimensions just change the goal posts when anyone ever gets near to “proving” anything.
    What was the question again? ….Oh yes Religion the old tool for controlling the mass’s, it’s all bullshit.