Many of the recent books and articles about the evolutionary origins of religion claim that natural selection targeted “moral” behaviors and that these behaviors coalesced into “religion.” This is a story told primarily by group level selectionists (who have the bad habit of confusing biological evolution with something they call “cultural evolution”) and evolutionary psychologists (who have the bad habit of looking at how something currently functions and asserting that it functioned the same way in our evolutionary past).
As regular readers of the blog know, I have challenged this argument using several lines of evidence:
- Social primates, such as chimps, appear to understand and practice fairness, reciprocity and altruism, thus indicating that these “moral” behaviors have deep evolutionary roots;
- Children naturally develop a sense of fairness, reciprocity and altruism, thus suggesting that these traits have biological roots;
- Adults across the world and in different cultures tend to share basic and intuitive ideas about what is right and wrong (i.e., moral or immoral), which again indicates some degree of “moral” hard-wiring; and
- In many hunter-gatherer societies, the teaching and maintenance of right or “moral” behavior is completely divorced from ritualistic practices or spiritual beliefs; thus, the supposedly primordial “religion” of shamanism is not linked to morality.
Over the past week, I have been delving into the massive body of work on religion by the sociologist Rodney Stark. In an article titled “Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order,” Stark takes direct aim at the historically incorrect idea that religion and morality are necessarily linked:
“Religion functions to sustain the moral order.” This classic proposition, handed down from the founders, is regarded by many as the closest thing to a “law” that the social scientific study of religion possesses.
The only problem with this “law,” notes Stark, is that “it’s wrong.” Religion functions to sustain the moral order in certain societies, in certain places, and at certain times — usually within those societies that practice monotheism and whose gods are: (a) anthropomorphic; (b) concerned with morality; and (c) capable of punishing those who transgress morality. Obviously, not all spiritual traditions or religions — past or present — possess these characteristics.
As Stark notes, many anthropologists have made this observation based on ethnographic reports, and it was well known to Edward Tylor, one of anthropology’s founders, who in 1871 stated:
To some the statement may seem startling, yet the evidence seems to justify it, that the relation of morality to religion is one that only belongs in its rudiments, or not at all, to [premodern societies]. The popular idea that the moral government of the universe is an essential tenet of natural religion simply falls to the ground. [Shamanism and premodern religions are] almost devoid of that ethical element which to the educated modern mind is the very mainspring of practical religion.
This does not mean, Tylor comments, that premodern societies lack morals or moral teachings — they simply are not joined with spiritualism or religion:
Not, as I have said, that morality is absent from the life of of [premodern societies]. But these ethical laws stand on their own ground of tradition and public opinion, comparatively independent of the animistic beliefs and rites which exist beside them. [Premodern religion] is not immoral; it is unmoral.
In the remainder of his article — which should be required reading for group level selectionists, evolutionary psychologists, and story-tellers who locate the origins of religion in prosocial and moral behaviors — Stark dismantles the idea that religion functions primarily to sustain the moral order. While this may be true of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and also Hinduism, it is not true of all other spiritual traditions or religions.