Is evolution creating religion?

Well, not exactly creating religion, but driving the development of more and more sophisticated religion? And I suppose, to be completely clear, I should use the term “social evolution” rather than just “evolution” since the latter seems to denote primarily physical evolution.

But then I wouldn’t have such an interesting headline. Grin.

However, given those semantic caveats, the idea that social evolution is driving the form our religion is taking seems to be given strong support in some research discussed in the New York Times today. It reports on the research done by two archeologists in the Mexican Oaxaca Valley:

“During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated, astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.

This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.”

Read the full article here.

In other words, religion is a survival strategy. Which isn’t terribly surprising if you give the idea more than a moments thought, especially when religion undergirds what social anthropologists describe as an impulse to altruism.

The interesting bit here is that the archeologists are attempting to correlate religious forms to societal developmental stages. Again, not a surprising idea, but I think this is the first time anyone has attempted to make more than a qualitative argument that such a thing would happen.

It’s hard to confirm such an hypothesis in Archeology given the relative paucity of data, but it would be very interesting to try. Perhaps there’s more data than I think, or perhaps there’s more data out there that’s not been analyzed in this light.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...