Post No.: 0054
To clarify something first of all – memes in this context are any cultural elements that can be copied and passed on from individual-to-individual, analogously to how genes can be copied and passed on from generation-to-generation. Selection pressures, such as competition, exist for memes too that make certain cultural elements popular, unpopular, evolve or branch-off suddenly or gradually over time. (Indeed, the word meme itself somehow evolved to also mean a funny viral piece on the Internet!) Examples of memes include elements of languages, fashions, conspiracies, skills, mannerisms and religions.
Religion could be arguably considered as a result of an over-generalised application, or over-firing, or by-product side-effect, of existing instincts and cognitive tendencies that are/were originally and directly adaptive elsewhere but don’t have a direct adaptive function in these circumstances. Religion is costly in terms of time and resources so some theories are that these instincts or cognitive tendencies exist only because the original function is/was extremely adaptive (the pros overall outweigh the cons for a specie’s survival e.g. for social cognition, hence this by-product is not too costly), it could be just a set of memes that spread merely because they’re contagious/catchy, and/or religion can serve as a mechanism for social control thus has a direct adaptive function (but only for certain ingroups. It could be a set of beliefs and practices imposed upon the populace to allow a small elite group to manipulate and control society?)
Religion could be adaptive to individuals in other ways (e.g. ‘terror management’ (alleviating the fear of death or the unknown) or to give meaning to life so that we can make long-term plans rather than think that it’s all futile because we’ll all end up the same way regardless and once we’re dead we’re dead), and/or it could be adaptive to groups in other ways (e.g. it could be something that binds followers of particular beliefs together and makes them feel united and stronger as a whole, but at the cost of excluding outgroup members (such as atheists or followers of other beliefs). The hierarchal structure of religion may have also helped ensure relative intra-group peace – there’s less infighting if everyone knows their place (for better or worse).
Gods with omnipresence and the power to punish people can be used as devices to get people to obey authority even if they think other people, other mortals, are not there watching them do things. The bigger the civilisation, the more powerful and serious the god(s) tend to be. But whilst this seems oppressive, it can help enforce internal ingroup harmony – but again at the risk of creating external outgroup disharmonies i.e. conflicts with followers of other religions who also hold the belief that ‘God is on one’s own side hence one’s side shall be the rightful victor’, thus neither side relents in a holy war they’re convinced their side will ultimately win (God is the perceived ultimate force multiplier!)
Rituals can also help bind solidarity amongst members of a social group. So a recurring theme is that religion is good for ingroup cohesion (members of the same faith together) but can be bad for outgroup peace (members of one faith against members of other faiths), hence ingroup harmony but potential inter-group competition (wars between those of different faiths, even if their faiths are essentially related e.g. the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, or Protestants versus Catholics). Meow.
Whatever the reasons (it’s likely going to be a combination of multiple reasons), religion or spirituality in one form or another (however you wish to define it) is incredibly popular and prevalent amongst humans across time and place. Religious or spiritual beliefs can be adaptive in some ways and maladaptive in other ways. Whatever the reasons for all these religious beliefs (or indeed any human-held beliefs, behaviours or other memes) – it’s going to be down to a complex mix of genetic traits, culture/environment, evolution and sometimes the by-product side-effects of these evolved traits. There are many cognitive factors involved, at the individual and social levels, and these get expressed and then packaged and wrapped up together into a formal religion over time. Not all religions are the same but there are notable patterns, particularly between the more successful/popular ones versus the less successful/popular ones.
Humans are generally a risk-averse species so will follow the herd if uncertain of what to do, hence humans imitate the survival strategies of those before them, and tend to copy it all too, so all that’s useful and also (arguably) not so useful, including faiths, superstitions, rituals, traditions, supernatural beliefs and other cultural memes; because as a young learner we don’t know what’s really awaiting us in the world, even if our intuitions may say they (e.g. gods) might not exist. If everyone in your family and community are doing it and everyone else seems fine then you’ll likely, as a young child, copy and follow them and their beliefs and practices too, wholesale. And as these beliefs and practices evolve over time, this can lead to the formation of a religion, and religious beliefs and practices being transmitted from generation to generation (like any cultural meme or collection of memes, all religions evolve e.g. religions can spread and branch off into many different denominations over time).
We can learn a lot from our elders/authorities that is adaptive, but at times we trust them and their teachings even when their reasons are not entirely apparent or correct (e.g. faiths, superstitious rituals, or ‘old wives’ tales’). Our propensity to accept certain teachings with little question may be evolutionarily given, and as long as something doesn’t immediately harm or kill us off, we will tend to continue doing it. Most people likewise trust in modern technologies without fully understanding them (or concerning themselves about security or privacy doubts for instance). And we can see that we all believe and spread many different types of cultural memes that don’t really benefit our survival or genetic propagation, but most of all don’t harm our survival or genetic propagation either.
So particularly when young, we are proficient at imitating, learning and adapting – but this does mean that we also tend to easily pick up and trust in folk tales and maladaptative convictions too that may not in most cases directly or instantly harm us but may harm us or society indirectly or in the long-run (e.g. divisive racial, ethnical or religious beliefs). Instincts that are/were adequate and useful in one situation can also become wasteful or dangerous in another, hence we didn’t evolve to always do what’s best for ourselves in the long-run.
Memes or collections of memes, such as religions, ultimately spread like genes spread i.e. if they’re fit or good enough to spread. But ‘good enough’ to spread is not the same thing as ‘the best’ or ‘the truth’ – although from a transmission point of view it’s better than ‘not good enough’.