Is Belief in Gods Adaptive?

Over at NPR, Alix Spiegel presents a stimulating piece (which you can listen to or read) that asks: Is Believing in God Evolutionarily Advantageous? It seems to me that framing the question in this way suggests certain answers, all of which are neatly ensconced within Western and modern understandings of what constitutes “religion.”  The story’s lede shows this to be the case:

For decades, the intellectual descendants of Darwin have pored over ancient bones and bits of fossils, trying to piece together how fish evolved into man, theorizing about the evolutionary advantage conferred by each physical change. And over the past 10 years, a small group of academics have begun to look at religion in the same way: they’ve started to look at God and the supernatural through the lens of evolution.

In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. That is, something so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn’t slowly died out until we were all left with the trait. But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?

The giveaways are in the second paragraph — while it almost certainly is true that all humans over the last 75,000 years or so have believed in the supernatural, these beliefs have only recently (i.e., over the last 5,000 years) coalesced into something like “systems” grounded in “moral” behaviors.  It surely is no coincidence that such systems arose in conjunction with agriculture and larger scale societies.

This is an important point, given that Spiegel’s story revolves around Jesse Bering’s research into the effect that surveilling supernatural agents have on behavior and Dominic Johnson’s work on the relationship between religion and cooperation.  They are interested, in other words, on the connection between religiosity and morality, two concepts that were not linked during the exceedingly long period of human history during which shamanisms represent the primary forms of supernaturalism.

Although this history cannot be studied in a lab, it can be glimpsed through ethnohistory and ethnography.  Unfortunately, neither Spiegel nor his academic informants see this and the story ends on an unduly pessimistic note:

So the argument goes that as our human ancestors spread around the world in bands, keeping together for food and protection, groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together.

We are their descendants. And Johnson says their belief in the supernatural is still very much with us.  “Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don’t do things that they consider bad because they think they’ll be punished for it.”

And then there are the people who say that cooperation doesn’t come from God — that cooperation evolved from our need to take care of family or show potential mates that we were a good choice. The theories are endless.

Unfortunately it’s not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. So these speculations will remain just that: speculations.

We can, in a sense, rewind the movie and when we do so — by, for instance, closely attending to the relatively well documented supernatural beliefs of the North American Plains Indians — we see that people were cooperating, punishing, and acting in certain ways (i.e., “morally”) not because they thought deities were watching them, but because this is what was required for continued membership within the extended kinship group.  One does not attend to this record in labs or receive grant money to study it, so we should not expect many cognitive scientists of religion to be evaluating their findings with history.

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