Like Razib, I’m secular and an atheist, and this forces me to ask myself, “Why religion?” If religion is as false as it seems to be, why does it exist?
I have three answers. These are not exclusive but overlapping, and the fact that two of them are more or less mutually incompatible often leads to apparently paradoxical developments.
Religious belief can be either functional or dysfunctional, either from the social or from the individual point of view. The falsehood of a religion does not entail its harmfulness, and in fact the robustness of religious belief suggests that religion must be in some way, at least socially, more functional than not.
In different ways my three explanations of religious belief all center on “long shot” situations, where the chances of success by routine means are low or doubtful. (This squares with Malinowski: where routine non-magical methods work most of the time, the most superstitious tribesman will use them). In all cases they also involve choices which are probably not rational from the individual’s point of view, but are rational from the point of view of the species.
Thus, these forms of religion can be called altruistic. I’m not up to date on the evolutionary debate on innate altruism — innate dispositions which lead the organism to behave in a way which reduces his or her own personal evolutionary success, while enhancing the evolutionary success of the group (species or kingroup) to which he or she belongs. As I understand that’s been a hard case to make even with the help of kin altruism.
Perhaps the innate trait leading to altruistic behavior is not intrinsically altruistic, but is exapted for altruism within a learned, conventional, non-innate social context such as religion. Candidates for such innate dispositions might be those toward male bonding, submissiveness, and anger against outsiders.
My first two explanations of religion are familiar and have been given by Marx, Nietzsche, and many others. First, religion gives comfort to people whose actual situation in life is unendurable, or almost. Hope for an imaginary and unreal future paradoxically makes the painful present more bearable. This is the “opiate of the people” explanation, and is associated with exploitation, heirarchy, and domination.
Second, religion can motivate self-sacrifice, for example in war. In some sense this might be thought of as a version of the first, but the behaviors of the submissive peasant and the soldier are so different that I thought I’d list them separately. Just like the first case, this involves some degree of altruism: Religion tends to use promises about the afterlife to sugarcoat an earthly life which is hard to face rationally and is, in fact, a very bad deal.
My third point is by far the most interesting. New religions, crazy as they usually are, can be compared to mutations in biology. Even if most of them are harmful, some of them successfully move into new niches in the historical landscape. Thus, even though most new religions, like most new genes, are destructive or neutral, whatever bold, successful social innovations there are have often been religious in motivation. For most people conventional behavior and the status quo are the robust default choices except in the very worst situations, and in fact many people will follow the rules even if it literally kills them.
My favorite example of this is from Polynesia. Polynesia was settled during the Christian era by shiploads of families migrating with their pigs and their tools. Polynesians were great navigators, but the big discoveries — of New Zealand from Hawaii, for example — were made by people jumping off into the void, who could not know where they would land or whether there was any land there at all. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that these voyages were motivated by religious visions of an apocalyptic sort. Most such expeditions must have died miserably, but the ones who didn’t succeeded gloriously (settling Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, and so on.)
Thus new religions, like mutations, are high-risk high-stakes gambles.
My premise is that serious religious belief is never individually rational, leading as it does to self-sacrifice, submission to exploitation, and crazy gambles. I’ve thought of trying to describe the circumstances in which new religious beliefs are successful and socially rational (after the fact), but that isn’t at all easy.
The three variables I’ve figured out are: 1.) the worse-adapted conventional practice becomes, the more likely it is that a new religion will be an improvement. 2.) The more successful a conventional practice is, the more likely it is that people will be able to experiment, since they have more leisure and more surplus. 3.) If there’s a significantly more favorable niche accessible from the conventional niche, whichever innovator gets there first will have an advantage. (#1, #2, and #3 are completely independent, and #1 and #2 or more or less incompatible. I suspect that evolutionists have worked this kind of question out more systematically.)
I should also point out that religions of submission (#1) readily morph into religions of rebellion (for example, by promoting a minor deity or by revising the theogony.) This is historically observable and shouldn’t be thought of as problematic. In terms of my argument, anyone in condition #1 has no good choices: both submission or rebellion can lead to extreme misery, and seldom does either lead to happiness or success. For someone in these circumstances to flip from one desperate solution to the other is nothing strange.
In my opinion, the payoff of this piece is the suggestion that new religions, while irrational, are like mutations. Few of them succeed, but they are part of the cruel and bloody process of proliferation and decimation (variation and selective retention) which constitutes both evolution and history.