Post No.: 0039
Religious or spiritual beliefs in immaterial souls (that can exist without a physical vessel and have strictly free wills), in god(s) and in the afterlife – can be adaptive for individuals and groups because they can give people a sense of autonomy/control, responsibility, guidance, meaning, morality, solace/internal peace and can alleviate the bleakness of other people or oneself dying for there is a belief in a form of something that exists beyond this life (along with a sense of justice because there is often a good afterlife for people who do good/we love and a bad afterlife for people who do bad/we hate, where we cannot personally stay with or take vengeance on these people anymore because they’re already dead; thus either way, heaven or hell, afterlives can help us to let go of the dead). They can alleviate the fear of feeling alone, small and virtually insignificant in time and space. They can provide a balm for existential concerns. Religions can bind social groups together hence are adaptive for groups too (at least for ingroup members i.e. members of the (exact) same religion as each other).
Religious beliefs are very prevalent across multiple major and minor cultures across the world – the vast majority of the human population still follows one faith or another – even though some may argue that they are outdated in a similar way that believing that the entire universe or solar system revolves around the Earth is outdated. Merely believing in something doesn’t make that thing true – but really the truth doesn’t matter as long as something benefits a group’s survival and/or reproductive success. Religions culturally evolved (and still survive today despite pressures) because they were/are adaptive for pro-sociality within their groups and helped their host groups historically succeed against other groups.
The study of the belief in deities, spirits and the afterlife is in the general domain of psychology rather than theology. The broad scientific field of psychology (which includes evolutionary psychology, or how psychological traits evolved) explores and explains this phenomenon – not the phenomenon of the existence of actual supernatural abilities or the paranormal (we’ll leave this topic completely to one side for the foreseeable time being) but the phenomenon of people’s beliefs in such.
Religion is not unique or special cognitively – it’s just another effect of our innate cognitive processes, predispositions, biases and heuristics. Beliefs in religious ideas are natural and (system one) intuitive – they emerge early in life and can be extremely difficult to eliminate (like any other outcome of an over-generalised, over-firing intuition, heuristic or bias). It’s a natural phenomenon that can be examined via science (as natural as drug addiction, masturbation or conflict for instance).
Religious or religious-type beliefs are borne from a combination of genetic instincts and culture and how they co-evolve. We intuitively encode, distort and recall information in predictable ways, which facilitates, shapes, constrains and fosters the formation of different types of religious or religious-type beliefs and practices. Our cognitive predispositions naturally support as well as constrain what types of religious or religious-type beliefs tend to develop (e.g. we tend to believe in agency, but tend to believe only in agents that come in forms that we’re familiar with, such as humanoids or other existing animals in the local environment, or a hybrid of such existing creatures or parts). Our intuitions give us the raw proclivities to believe in something (e.g. some kind of agent) and then culture fleshes them out into these more elaborate beliefs (e.g. a deity with a white beard in a robe or a deity with the head of a dog). Woof.
We innately believe in or perceive agency, patterns, causality, intentions and purpose within natural events, we have a desire for a just world, we hold a fear of pain and punishment, and more – instincts selected that overall aid (or at least overall do nothing to harm) the survival and reproduction of the human species. But then these instincts over-fire and co-evolve with culture to readily and intuitively give rise to religious beliefs and religion in its many forms, which can then help a large ingroup community to cooperate and function… but at a risk of creating outgroup divisions.
Our over-firing pattern detection instincts give rise to many superstitious beliefs whether we or they are formally considered religious or not (e.g. praying one night and then something good happens within the next week, or items of clothing deemed lucky because your team won once or twice while you were wearing them – this instinct and these superstitions conflate correlation with causation).
As much as dogs woof and sniff butts, or cats meow and scratch stuff, for instance – humans have their own general species-wide innate cognitive and physical processes, inclinations, biases and heuristics. We must not forget that, from a scientific perspective, humans evolved like any other animal after all, and aren’t a separate or unique part of the tree of life.
And since we all possess the genetic instincts to believe in religious or religious-type beliefs, religiosity isn’t a matter of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, but just ‘us’ – the only difference is the balance of environmental circumstances we got/get exposed to (e.g. whether we were raised in a household that followed a particular formal religion or not, whether our closest peers did or not). Most people who don’t consider themselves religious still hold various superstitions or believe in ghosts, for example (and I’ve been calling these ‘religious-type’ beliefs); the only difference here is that the collection of such beliefs such a person holds have not been packaged into a formal religion with a formal following (just like if one concocted a few recipes with a few other people but then these didn’t end up being packaged into a new and specific style of cuisine with a name, backstory and chefs as key characters that then caught on with a greater formal following, central recipe book, events and places to eat this cuisine, etc.).
Furrywisepuppy understands that this can be a controversial subject and heated debates may ensue, from both followers of formal religions and those who are secular or profane. Rather than attempt to change people’s beliefs one way or another, I’d just like everyone to understand each other a lot better. Please tell us via the Twitter comment button below if you think this goal is worthwhile or futile?