Q: Was religion an evolutionary advantage?
I haven’t read anything on this topic… so sorry if this is nonsensical. During the beginnings of civilization and cultural development, did the introduction of religion offer any advantages to those who adopted the belief? I don’t know much about ancient religions, but I suppose it would be an advantage as it would keep you from getting sacrificed as a nonbeliever and would allow you to fit in with the community, but what was the advantage of the inception of religion in the first place? Was it just a byproduct of our ability to mentally cope with most of the world, but not understand where it came from? Obviously the religious memes have been through a sorts of evolution on their own (became geographically isolated, and adapted over time), but I’m wondering what the advantage was to begin with?
A: Absolutely. Before society developed and codified it, religion existed (in a metaphorical sense) for millions of years. The mammals that learned to live in strict hierarchies were the ones most likely to survive. Even in the primitive world, multiple minds worked better than one. And from an evolutionary perspective, the only thing that really matters is survival.
If you lived on your own you had more of a chance of dying and less of a chance of reproducing. If you lived in a group but didn’t cooperate, then the group would be more likely to neglect you. If you lived in a group and understood your place in it, you had a support structure that could help provide for you. And with a large pool of genes to dive into, you were much more likely to pass your DNA onto the next generation. There have been plenty of studies of animals in the wild that happily submitted to hierarchies, and those species almost always do well.
We are the latest in an unbroken thread that stretches back millions of years. Everything that was beneficial to our ancestors (hearts, brains, love, fear, language, religion) is still around in all of us because it’s far more difficult to un-evolve an old trait than it is to evolve a new trait. So, our brains have the vestiges of our ancient heritage: fear of the dark, love for our family, an urge to protect our territory, and a need to fall into hierarchies. For evidence of this, just think about the common themes in almost all cultures: scary stories about things hiding in the dark, tendencies to put family above all else, a universal need to defend the homeland, and (of course) religions in every society all over the world. Virtually every social group, family, government, and religious institution has a defined hierarchy, and virtually everyone is comfortable with this idea.
For example, the United States prides itself on being a democracy. Why is it, then, that we feel the need to elect representatives instead of representing ourselves? Why do we elect a supreme leader in a democracy (a government run by people)? Why are the leaders we elect almost always male? The answer (while insufficient) is: that is how it has worked in the past. These tendencies are the shadows of our forgotten ancestors. They are present in everyone, and we can’t simply remove them because they’ve outlived their usefulness. We can only learn to live with them and with each other.