Why Religion Evolved

Everybody’s looking for something.  I think the Eurhythmics sang that.  People look for the love of their lives, devote themselves to religion, become activists for a political ideology, and are spiritual seekers because they’re looking for something.

But what is this something?  No one can quite put their finger on it.

Some people even think this something would appear if only everyone else would adopt their ideology.  And when others don’t, they lash out in anger.  And so religion and politics descend into authoritarianism.

Religion’s epitaph has been written many times, each one premature and disconnected from reality. There’s never been a culture without it, and atheists are a minority even in the most secular societies.

This calls for an evolutionary explanation that isn’t dismissive or partisan. The title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell implies an ideological quest to diminish religion. Still, he’s right about religion being a natural phenomenon which should be studied as such.

Dennett focuses on agenticity (also called theory of mind or intentional stance): we automatically assume, even as toddlers, that other people have thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc. But we overgeneralize. Little children often think their teddy bears can think and feel. Even as adults we might describe a computer as being stupid, as if a computer could think.

The earliest religions were animistic, where the forces of nature were thought to act intentionally and the sun and moon were deities. So it’s not much of a stretch from there to the assumption that invisible agents such as spirits and gods exist, and that whatever animated someone in life must continue after death.

But this doesn’t explain why religion is such a pervasive group endeavor. Evolution typically focuses on the individual, but individuals don’t exist in isolation – we survive in groups. So it makes sense that evolution selected for behaviors that enable individuals to be effective group members. (This is not group evolution, but rather individuals who cooperate with others being more likely to survive.)

Religion often creates the cohesion groups need, as well as addressing the uniquely human search for meaning. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, quotes a World War II veteran who said that at first he thought marching exercises were stupid, but he understood its purpose once his unit began to function almost like a single organism with each person forgetting his individuality.

In battle you forget about yourself, but once the bullets stop flying you’re an individual again. Transcendence is short lived because it serves a specific function, that of binding the individual to the whole by temporarily leaving the self behind.  But for mundane tasks, which is most of what we do, we need to act as individuals.

The transcendence of self that soldiers experience in combat is not unlike the transcendence of self the Zen master experiences in meditation (but less riskier).  In the evolutionary environment, humans had to deal not only with conflicts with outside groups, but more often they had to function as a hunting team.  This was much harder than sport hunting today.  Weapons were primitive, there were predators like lions to contend with, and failure meant starvation.  Subsuming the self to the interests of the whole can be necessary for group coherence with nonviolent tasks as well.

In other words, civilization can’t happen without the ability to focus on something greater than ourselves – and religion helps us do this.  Haidt points out that many anthropologists view religion not primarily as belief in supernatural agents, but rather as primarily about community and ritual.

Ritualistic behavior is also a human universal, and synchronized movement – whether it’s marching soldiers or a religious ritual – seems to play an essential role in binding a group together.  The wave at a baseball game does the same thing.

That complex civilizations are impossible without cooperation is no small observation.  Haidt notes that you never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.  Chimps don’t cooperate at such a high level.  But humans cooperate to the point where we’ve gone to the moon.

As such, Haidt (though an atheist) disagrees with Dennett’s claim that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other traits, much like alcoholism’s (partially) genetic basis.  Haidt claims that religion evolved because it serves to cohere a group of people.

In sum, religion is about what happens between individuals and groups, and these individuals include invisible agents born from a pervasive human cognitive error (overgeneralized agenticity).

To this end, Haidt notes that, “Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studies in lone bees” (p. 248). Thus, religion can only be understood in the context of community.

Further, Nichols Wade, in The Faith Instinct, claims that morality – the need to sometimes subordinate one’s self-interest to the greater needs of society – also evolved in humans to enable us to function in groups. As such, it makes sense that religion took on morality as its special project. Supernatural agents often are the enforcers of morality, thus tying agenticity and group cohesion together.

I think another reason religion evolved is that our intelligence leads us to wonder why we exist at all, and so people everywhere seem to need a comprehensive worldview that explains why we’re here and where we’re going.  Typically, this worldview is communicated as a story or myth. A shared worldview conveys meaning, and this is essential for a species that can ask the question, Why?

But free riders are a big problem groups face. The most conservative religions today seem to be the most successful, which baffles secularists and religious progressives.  Economist Laurence Iannaccone notes that conservative groups demand a high membership price – adhering to a strict moral code, distinctive dress, rejection by mainstream society, etc. In return they receive the benefits of group membership. Free riders don’t like the price, so they drift away.

None of this shows that God doesn’t exist, but neither does it prove God does exist. But what if God does exist? The modesty that comes with uncertainty causes us to recognize a few things:

For starters, there’s no way to know, so belief is an opinion and we can’t blame atheists for disagreeing. Even if there is some higher power, there’s no reason to assume this is God rather than an impersonal principle, a Goddess, or multiple deities.

And now that we know just how vast the universe is, it seems unlikely that God created all this just for us, or that God is even a person. If horses had gods they would look like horses, as they saying goes.

Then there’s the problem of ideas that are logically incoherent, such as the trinity or evil and the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And we must recognize that science trumps religion regarding the natural world. But if science someday is able to show that multiple universes are most likely the case, then God’s fate may be sealed because the statistical improbability of our universe would disappear.

So while rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated, religion is stuck in the past and is struggling to grow up. If history is any guide, however, religion will eventually succeed. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but typically the process is organic and grassroots rather than by design or decree.


Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

Knocking Down Trees With Our Bare Hands

The summer and fall of 1983 (the year I turned 10) we lived in a small Maine town in the middle of nowhere. My parents were inbetween houses, the previous one having sold much quicker than expected. So quick we couldn’t take the dog with us.

I liked living in a small town. Summer is a time for being outdoors. I’ve never been a gamer, but we had no videogames anyway. (Though we got an Atari the following year, I had lost interest by the time Nintendo came along).

I liked going into the woods and knocking down trees. They were dead pine trees, not yet fallen, but easily fallen given a little push.

My sister would join me. She’s a year older and shared my childhood fascination with dirt and bugs. And knocking down trees.

“I’m the strongest man in the forest!” And she was too. Even though she wasn’t a man, and I wasn’t either.

Another sister (who is a couple years younger) had an aversion to such things, though she watched the lumberjacking from a safe distance. A third sister (yes, you, Jess!) might have been watching Sesame Street at the time.

We made a fort. Or maybe hovel is a better word. There were three granite boulders forming a U shape, and we placed branches over the top. The hovel was full of dirt and bugs.

Mark destroyed it.

I know it was him.

Mark was a high school boy who had a chainsaw, which is normal is rural Maine. His parents heated the house with wood, and it was his job to turn trees into firewood.

One day I discovered that my hovel was destroyed. The branches on top were cut down the middle and caved in.

It was a perfect cut.

Damn you, Mark!

A few years later when my older sister discovered boys she renounced her fascination with dirt and bugs. But eventually she married a sometime farm boy, and today she handles dirt (and chickens) more than I do.

Meanwhile, I’m a social worker at a hospital that’s obsessed with properly washing your hands. And I find myself doing that even at home.

Men’s Silence

Silent doesn’t mean taciturn. A man might talk endlessly, constantly interrupting others. But all he does is tell jokes and talk about sports and politics. No one really knows what’s going on inside him.

Men’s silence is often socially enforced. The call to “man up” and the meme “I bathe in male tears” discourage men from showing their vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why Mad Men‘s Don Draper tries so hard to avoid dealing with his troubled childhood. An ad exec, Don is the archetype of strong and silent. Changing his name from Dick Whitman is symbolic of his inner disconnection, and Mad Men is a chronicle of the external consequences.

Don is a hard man to like. He’s a womanizer and alcoholic who leaves a trail of broken relationships. Raised an unloved orphan, his first sexual experience as a boy with an older woman would have been called statutory rape if it had happened to a girl at the hands of a man. How did this contribute to his future womanizing? Could it be that he’s not so much a chauvinist as he is a man struggling with the power women have over him?

Don doesn’t think to ask these questions, and even if he did he might be told to quit his whining. He’d be shoved back into silence.

In Invisible Men, Michael Addis describes three types of silence: Personal silence is a lack of self-awareness. Private silence is when you know how you feel but choose to keep it to yourself. And public silence is when you try to open up to others but are shot down, often in subtle ways.

Don’s silence is internal and lacking self-awareness. In the final season he takes off without saying a word to anyone. Winding up at a hippie retreat in California, he’s initially resistant to all the touchy-feely stuff but ends up calling his coworker Peggy on the verge of tears, struggling to reevaluate his life. Then in group therapy a man talks about his feelings of invisibility. Shocking everyone, Don hugs the man.

Most men must struggle with the double bind of being told that showing vulnerability is a weakness, and then being blamed for their silence. And there’s often a misguided assumption that men are silent on purpose, to punish their partners.

What does Don do with his new found self-awareness? The final episode ends with the famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial. Does the ad show that Don opens up to others about his need to be valued as a person? Or upon returning to the ad world, does Don bury his emotions again? That’s for you to decide.

Addis notes that people will communicate under the right circumstances, and men are no exception. He writes that masculinity can be viewed as a “transaction between a person and his environment” (his emphasis). That is, fulfilling social expectations to avoid rejection. As such, anger, aggression, posturing, arrogance, and silence can be masks for the deeper issue, such as fear, sadness, anxiety, rejection, and social isolation.

A recent study with men and video games found that men who bully women online often do so because of competition within the male hierarchy (though sexism is also an obvious factor too).

Specifically, women are more attracted to high-status men, and a man’s place in the male hierarchy is heavily influenced by his desirability to women. But low-status men who are outperformed by women fear that they become even less desirable to women, thus pushing these men further down the male hierarchy.

Loss of status is hard for men to deal with because men are already more likely to be socially isolated than women. However, the study doesn’t address why high-status males bully low-status males. Likely it’s enforcement of their higher status in the hierarchy. The same is true for high-status women and girls who bully those of lower status.

It’s true that raising emotionally aware boys could improve things. Teaching empathy is also critical. But empathy for men and boys is just as critical.

The larger issue is societal acceptance and encouragement of men opening up. This means a shift in male culture to something less hierarchical and toward offering support to other men rather than expecting men to resolve their issues independently and silently.

To Be or Not Be Catholic, and Atheist

The stonework of the vast interior, made to seem even larger by the emptiness of the high, rounded ceiling, creates a cavernous feeling. But the darkness of the stone is interrupted by colorful, translucent light, creating a sense of jeweled infinity beyond the opaque and impenetrable rock. It serves as a visual metaphor of our hope that life, beyond its impenetrable mysteries, is something more. The dark austerity of the daily grind is, we desire, underpinned by something bright and beautiful.

One feels so small and insignificant in a cathedral; and yet, there is intimacy. Watching over the visitors are marbled figures. Some have wings; others have crowns; and there are even those with but simple garb, an unadorned cassock, and serene, knowing expression. They look like us – they have human form – but their strange dress speaks of another world. And their wings, halos, crosses, and crowns tell us that their lives, unlike ours, are anything but ordinary.

These saints, angels, Madonnas, and Christs – whether child, man, or risen Lord – inhabit two worlds: Heaven and Earth. Through these intercessors and intermediaries, the worshipper believes that the promise of rescue from this world through eternal salvation will be granted.

The bright colors and intricate details of the icons frozen in the stained glass windows and painted on the ceiling command the attention of anyone venturing inside. They illustrate the ancient stories we know well – God’s plan for the salvation of the human race as revealed in His Holy Word. The cathedral itself is one giant icon, with the apse at the head, the nave toward the bottom, and the transepts on each side, forming a cross.

Whether a believer or not, the terrible beauty of a cathedral inspires awe. But more so for the believer, for whom the cathedral creates a deep emotional connection to the stories that form her or his worldview.

That worshippers would expend such immense time, energy, and valuable resources to build a cathedral, especially in a time of scarcity such as the Middle Ages, speaks to the power of faith.

Even if such faith is firmly rejected by some, the emotional intensity of this rejection – indeed, the revulsion some might feel – only serves to emphasize the deep chord religious belief strikes in the human heart.

~                      ~                      ~

I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for almost 20 years.  At age 18 I decided that I couldn’t become a priest because I didn’t have the absolute certainty that the infallibility of Catholic doctrine requires. Essential doctrines such as the Trinity, incarnation, and so on can’t be mostly infallible – it’s all or nothing.

I became a non-literalist, continuing a sort-of belief in God, which I thought of as a mythopoetic personification of ultimate reality, whatever that might be; an image human beings created as a stand-in for this giant existential question mark.

Over time I decided that deep mythopoetic thoughts are far less important than the way I choose to live my life, and admitting that really I think materialism is all there is to reality, sealed my fate as an atheist.

Still, being Catholic will always be part of who I am, even if I haven’t gone to church in years.  And constantly rallying against the Catholic Church, which became so much easier after the sexual abuse scandal, can only become destructive because such opposition means fighting a part of who I am.

But being an atheist is a larger part of who I am. And that is why I am not Catholic.

The Dangers of Moralizing

Human beings are moral creatures. Whether you believe God made us that way, or that evolution favored people who worked well with others, doing what’s right matters to everyone. (Well, maybe not to psychopaths.)

For millennia, morality has been a religious monopoly, but today millions of atheists show that you can be good without God. Secular morality (such as the wrongness of homophobia) is overtaking religious morality (such as the wrongness of homosexuality). And that’s a good thing.

But not all moralizing is the same. Some moralizing is an abstract investigation of general principles, or ethics. Some moralizing is self-critical – striving to be a better person, or character. And some moralizing is accusatory, pointing a finger at others and demanding better behavior. Which is to say, self-righteousness.

I grew up in a very religious, Catholic family. In 8th and 9th grade I attended a Christian school run by the Pentecostal, evangelical Assembly of God church. I need not detail the characteristics of right-wing preachers. But I see liberals railing against right-wing evangelicals without pausing to consider why their reaction is so visceral. Yet, a casual glance at Twitter’s left-wing Puritans solves that mystery.

Another example is that the judge who released a court transcript where Bill Cosby admitted giving women Quaaludes for sexual reasons (that is, rape according to two dozen women) said he did so because of the “stark contrast” of Cosby the public moralizer who has behaved in an “improper (and perhaps criminal)” manner.

Which reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A priest once told me that Jesus wasn’t saying don’t judge. Rather, he was saying you’ll be held to the same standard, so be careful of the judgments you make.

I’ve heard it said, “When you point a finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” (Point your index finger then look at your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers.)

The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s often a cover-up for bad behavior. This includes passive-aggressive self-righteousness, where the person doesn’t say, “You are bad,” but rather, “I’m the kind of person who lives by a higher moral standard.” In other words, I’m better than you and you need to be more like me.

As a young social worker in the late 1990s I worked at a residence for people living with AIDS, some of whom were recovering heroin addicts. One resident (I’ll call her “Jane”) had become particularly vocal about the importance of recovery, and how most of the people at Narcotics Anonymous were lying about their sobriety. It got to the point where she began targeting a certain peer.

The residence manager, and de facto substance abuse counselor (and best damn substance abuse counselor I’ve ever known, even if she didn’t have the credentials), told me that Jane had either relapsed or was about to.

I was doubtful. How could someone so passionate about recovery be using? That’s the first sign, she told me. Jane is pointing a finger at others, and she doth protest too much. Sincerity is typically self-focused: the recovering addict talks about fighting her own urge to use.

That lesson stuck with me. As a counselor, she struck a balance between toughness and deep empathy. Such a hard balance! I can be empathetic. And I can be confrontational when need be. But I’ve never been able to be tough and empathetic simultaneously.

This is why I don’t like Dr. Phil. It’s easy to judge him. But it’s true that I don’t like what I see in him because I see it in myself. This is true for all of us, and the people we don’t like.

And that’s the key. If I see something that really riles me about someone else, I need to find where in myself that same fault resides.

Fashion: Women, Men & the Last 100 Years

How has fashion changed in the past century? Well, office attire for men hasn’t changed much. The suit & tie can’t lose (though offices today are often more casual). On the other hand, women’s office attire has changed a lot.

But what about everyday attire? Youtube channel Glam answers that question.

First up is women’s fashions 1915-2015:


I freeze framed it at 2015 because that’s my favorite. 1995 is number two.

Up next is men’s fashions over the last 100 years:


1945 is my favorite, though I’d be wearing a bow tie.

But I really have to wonder what the hell happened to men’s fashion in the 1970s and ’80s?

One Youtube comment suggested cocaine, which may be accurate.