In Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, the anthropologist David Sloan Wilson argues that group level selection can, at least in part, account for the origins of religion. According to this theory, selection favors individuals who are members of tightly knit and cohesive groups. As Wilson sees things, such groups are most often held together by religion. In his recent book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, the New York Times science writer and author Nicholas Wade makes a similar argument.
These kinds of arguments depend on some fairly large assumptions. While I have no problem with multi-level selection, I find little evidence for the idea that group cohesion is primarily the product of religion. Prosocial and “moral” behaviors, in other words, do not arise primarily or exclusively because people are religious.
Indeed, I would argue that the kinds of religion we associate with tightly knit groups arose only recently in human history. They are, in other words, the products of highly organized and modern forms of religion. These forms of religion are governed mostly by cultural patterns, not biological evolution.
It is difficult to imagine paleolithic hunter-gatherers being bound together primarily by religion. Kinship probably played a much larger role in maintaining group cohesion and guiding prosocial behavior. Indeed, one need only look at ethnographically and historically known hunter-gatherers (e.g., the San of Southern Africa or the Lakota of the Plains) to see that their lives — and tribal identities — do not revolve entirely or even primarily around religion.
It is hard to make the case (as Wilson and Wade both do) that religion is the product of biological evolution when the kinds of groups they see as being bound together by religion are so historically recent. Moreover, they are relatively rare.
Having said this, there are some groups that are bound together primarily by religion. In the German newsmagazine Spiegel, Ulrike Putz reports on one such group of 550,000 people:
It is the world of the Orthodox Jews in Israel, whose adherents live in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. They radically shield themselves from modern life. Television is frowned upon, as is non-religious music, telephones and the Internet. News that is important to the community is disseminated via notices posted on walls. Boys and girls go to school, but their education is primarily focused on religion.
I’m not sure that indoctrination focused on religion can be called “education.” It’s a sad story.