Religion and the Evolution of Humans

Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161" used in the film The Tree of Life.

Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161″ used in the film The Tree of Life.

Quite aside from whether or not one subscribes to a particular religious doctrine, the historical fact of religion as a human artifact poses intriguing questions about the whether or not religious belief in a broad sense (whether monotheistic, polytheistic or some other form) conferred evolutionary advantages that enabled humans to survive and thrive.

Facing the seemingly random acts of nature, there would seem to be a case for the evolution of supernatural beliefs as a means of psychological stability: the thought that we could make some kind of sense of nature and attempt an influence of events through a supernatural intermediary. Furthermore, the imposition of “right and wrong,” the idea of morals as defined and enforced by a god or gods might help establish and maintain a social order that might otherwise fall apart if left solely to the efforts of people. Cynics might also consider religion a product of a ruler or ruling class for their own benefit.

A new research effort is aiming to collect a comprehensive and global fact base on the nature of religious belief. The effort is called CERC or the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium. The effort is a product of HECC, the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture.

HECC is a joint University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University research hub that connects evolutionary scientists to psychologists, religious studies scholars and others in the humanities and social sciences. The Centre recently received a $3 million grant that will provide the foundation for the international Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium. The CERC website describes the work as a

…six-year project [that] brings together the expertise of over fifty scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars from universities across North America, Europe and East Asia—along with post docs and graduate students—into a research network that will be called the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC). Over this six-year project, CERC aims to answer the question of what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence.

Tristan Hopper in an article for the National Post wrote:

Seven years ago, social psychologist Ara Norenzayan gathered 125 participants at the University of British Columbia, asked them to solve a word puzzle and then handed them $10 with instructions to share it with a stranger. As expected, some participants kept the whole sum and some split it 50-50 — but the surprising thing was how easily their generosity could be moulded by the subtleties of the word puzzle.

Participants who completed a puzzle peppered with religious words, such as “spirit,” “God” or “prophet,” largely decided to split the cash. Participants with neutral word puzzles, meanwhile, barely shared at all. Even if they did not realize it, the belief in a “supernatural police” officer appeared to be inspiring subconscious outpourings of generosity, Mr. Norenzayan mused to reporters.

For decades, academia has largely ignored religion as irrelevant or at worst, parasitic. But a new — and controversial — theory holds that cities, agriculture and even society as we know it would never have taken hold if humanity had not believed a deity was keeping tabs. And now, with six years, $3-million and a travel schedule that will bring them to the most remote corners of the planet, a team of Vancouver researchers are out to prove once and for all that religion may be humanity’s greatest “cultural technology.”

“There is a view that religion is an ancient superstition that’s going to fall away,” said Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and the lead of a massive Canadian project billed as world’s largest academic study of religion.

“If our theory is right it’s actually been the cornerstone to civilizations.”

Throughout most of history, the default human religion was tribal: Events were randomly governed by groups of supernatural beings similar to the gods of ancient Greece. Sky gods stole the sun every night, the fertility gods made women pregnant — but the behaviour was haphazard.

Then, about 5,000 years ago, a new and revolutionary type of deity began emerging in the Middle East. For the first time in history, gods cared what humans were doing.

“The innovation is having gods that care about moral values: hard work, not cheating your neighbours, not shirking from battle,” said Mr. Slingerland. “That makes it possible for people to bind themselves into larger units than was possible before.”

Traditionally, scientists have seen agriculture — not religion — as the singular foundation that allowed humans to build cities and draw up complex political systems. The problem is; agriculture was not the immediate boon that might be assumed. Agriculture required massive amounts of cooperation and labour, was riddled with disease, and according to archeologists, left farmers in much worse shape than their hunter-gatherer cousins.

For early humans to have stayed focused on such a seemingly futile project, goes the theory, something deeper must have been holding them together. “As soon as you start needing complex irrigation systems, our hypothesis is that you can’t get very big without religion,” said Mr. Slingerland.

One component of CERC is to pull together historians, anthropologists and archeologists from around the world to assemble a gargantuan digital catalogue of every religious belief held by every culture throughout time.

At the same time, CERC will dispatch teams of psychologists to more than 20 field sites all around the globe to gauge the religious beliefs of people from Northern Ireland to the Central African Republic using psychological tests such as the priming experiment mentioned in the introduction.

When the database of CERC’s findings goes public in 2018, researchers will be able to select any historical period or region of the world and be provided with an itemized list of what the locals believed, how it affected their population size, agricultural prowess and military might — and even how they expressed their collective faith, right down to whether they circumcised their sons or got neck tattoos.

It is akin to a religious version of Oxford University’s 19th century push to document the origins and mutations of every single word of the English language — a project that ultimately yielded the Oxford English Dictionary. Religious data in hand, researchers then expect to draw up sweeping pictures of how different beliefs grew, shrank or destroyed societies.

“We have an idea that certain rituals and beliefs make societies more successful and more likely to expand at the expense of other societies,” said Joseph Henrich, a UBC psychologist and CERC partner. Conversely, researchers also expect to trace a “mellowing out” of religious beliefs as societies modernize.

As courts, police and national beliefs move in to take the place once held by religion, deities are allowed to shift from punishment-minded wardens to the “kinder, gentler” God worshipped by most modern world religions. “The appearance of a loving God that doesn’t do too much punishing is a modern phenomenon,” said Mr. Henrich. Naturally, according to Mr. Slingerland, a project like this is “fundamentally controversial.”

Right off the bat, it enrages the religious by starting on the premise that gods are not real. At the same time, atheists can be equally enraged by the notion that without religion, humanity would still be foraging for berries.

More contentious still, is the inevitable fact that the data will show some religions as being “better” at building prosperous societies than others. A recent Harvard study, for instance, pored over 40 years of data and concluded that a country’s belief in hell provided a measurable boost to its economy.

Spending his teen years in Beirut during the sectarian violence of the Lebanese Civil War, Mr. Norenzayan is well-acquainted with the uglier side of religion. And oddly, it is this ugly side that he credits for academia’s newfound interest in the topic. Among social scientists, the September 11th attacks spawned “a realization that there’s religion in the world and it can turn toxic.”

Some of CERC’s findings may be irksome, but “the answer is not to hide the evidence,” he said. “We don’t do that with anything else, why would we do it with religion?”

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