Did Evolution Create Religion?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: Did evolution create religion?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • David McNerney

    I think there are more evolutionary reasons than just groups, superstition for example is a powerful evolved concept.

    I’m sure “Don’t eat pork” came from seeing people die who ate contaminated pork, which then became God don’t like people who eat pork – ditto for shellfish. The superstitious ones lived, the skeptics died.

    We all might see the 631 commandments of Leviticus as gibberish – but they would probably have made a lot of sense to a primitive nomadic culture (even 18:22).

    Not sure where the 2 kinds of cloth thing came from…

    • Jim Jones

      Don’t eat pork came from the same origins as “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” which then became “separate meat and dairy”, even to the point of having separate dishes.

      It’s the urge to be ‘special’, even to the point of how you cross yourself.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Well, no, there is a specific injunction against eating animals that don’t have cloven hooves. Pigs have cloven hooves, so they are explicitly not kosher. They also don’t chew their cud (another requirement), so they’re nonkosher in two ways.

        • Jim Jones

          Yes, but they thought rabbits were OK. It’s just a set of crazy rules for the sake of rules.

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            Oh that I generally agree with.

          • Discordia

            Lots of rules about food and nothing about washing hands to prevent the spread of disease.

            • Jim Jones

              Early form of inoculation – get plenty of germs.

        • Discordia

          Pigs have cloven hooves, so they are explicitly not kosher. Not exactly. According to Deut 14:4-8 and Lev 11:3-8, animals for eating had to have cloven hooves AND chew cud. Pigs don’t chew cud so they are excluded.
          Rabbits are not ruminants. They have only one stomach so they do not chew cud.

          The apologists engage in some impressive hair-splitting to explain why the Bible is accurate when it claims that rabbits chew cud. It’s because their jaws move like the jaws of cows and goats. Funny, though, as we humans can move our jaws like that also. Guess that makes us cud-chewers as well.

    • FTP_LTR

      Not sure where the 2 kinds of cloth thing came from…

      From the book of Asperger 1:2

      And Esau did say unto Ezra “Lo! The threads do cross linen cotton linen cotton cotton linen cotton” and did set to gnashing his teeth and beating his breast for one cotton thread was out of place.

      And Ezra did declaim “Shut the f*ck up” and smote him upside the head.

  • mark brooks

    See Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

  • Georgina

    Evolution favoured those who ‘believed’ on authority: “A sabor toothed tiger is in that cave, don’t bother to go check or it will eat you.”
    This was taken advantage of by the elderly, who could not longer hunt: “I know where the dangers lie, I can help you find food”.
    When they spun their tales of thunder gods and tree gods and water gods: believe or risk drowning.
    BELIEF, not religion, is an evolutionary trait. Religion is a greedy manifestation of that trait.

  • mikespeir

    Evolution created people and people created religion, so, yeah.

    • joey_in_NC

      Given materialism, this is 100% correct. Logic 101.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    There are other evolutionary reasons for religion than group benefits. I think it is at least partially a side effect of the development of symbolic thinking. This allows us to use imagination to solve complex problems and find order in things far in advance of other species. We are also driven to use it to find the motivation behind things which aids us in our interactions with each other and other animals. As a side effect, it also keeps us imagining order and motivation even where there is none.

  • C Peterson

    I think you’ve got this one completely wrong, Hemant.

    Humans are social animals, and that’s a product of evolution. But if it didn’t go beyond this, we’d see all sorts of alternatives to religion to fulfill social needs. But religion is ubiquitous, present across all societies. Something else is going on. And that something else is a predisposition to certain types of spirituality- something that is the product of evolution. Whether it evolved because it provided a survival advantage, or as a side-effect of some other cognitive function, is unknown. But that it exists is certain. And that’s all it took for humans to create religion, a social and political tool that exploits spirituality to control people.

    Evolution did not create religion. People did that. But religion exists because of the evolutionary path that led to humans. So in a very real sense, it is reasonable to say that evolution created religion.

    • Art_Vandelay

      That only explains the one’s that use it as a means to control people. Not the 99% that are being controlled.

      • C Peterson

        The social structures that humans create are almost always oligarchic. To what degree that is related to evolution, and to what degree it is cultural, I have no idea. But it is how humans work, so it’s not surprising that religion is usually oligarchic, as well.

    • Jason Hinchliffe

      “Evolution did not create religion. … So in a very real sense, it is reasonable to say that evolution created religion.”

      You seem confused.

      • C Peterson

        No, I’d say it’s you who is confused here.

        • Jason Hinchliffe

          Wow, and the kindergarten sandbox of argumentation begins. Well done. How about trying to decide whether Hemant is right or wrong and making a clear and decisive statement? Or hell, let me fix your meandering bullshit for you. “Evolution did not directly create religion, however, it’s effects set the stage for man to create it, so it played an important but limited role”. See that there? That’s called having a position. Hilariously, its more or less the position Hemant takes (though sadly doesn’t support) in his post. Of course, it’s difficult to be contrary when you’re agreeing.

          • C Peterson

            Sorry, but if your idea of argument is to take two isolated comments and then remove the intermediate sentences that put them into context, no rational argumentation is possible.

            • Jason Hinchliffe

              I isolated the two sentences only to highlight the dichotomy. There was nothing mitigating in between those sentences, and the inclusion of the interceding text only would have obfuscated the flaws of your thinking. When you start your point with “I think you’ve got this completely wrong” you have made a bold statement, and I expect you will support that. Otherwise, say something like “I’m not sure I’m completely with you here”. What’s more interesting though, as I said, is that your argument really seems to just mirror what Hemant was saying. You don’t disagree at all. You just think theres more to it. Hardly “Completely wrong”. Hence, you are confused.

            • Jason Hinchliffe

              I’m being a nitpicker. I get what you’re trying to say. I think you came out of the gates way too strong, and made a statement you later didn’t hold true to. Due to the primacy of said statement I thought it was in somewhat poor taste. My apologies. If it’s any consolation, I don’t believe Hemant supported his case well, and left himself open to criticism.

          • 3lemenope

            Your “improvements” to the articulation of the argument, such as they are, are counterbalanced by the effect your presentation has to anyone’s desire to take your criticism seriously.

            Not every blog comment is meant to stake a debate position. Not even most, really. It is perfectly OK for people to explore an idea and discuss it out loud without some requirement that they must take a position, or word their first impressions in a formal way. If you think of people talking informally about notions as “kindergarten sandbox” level, you are certainly welcome to entertain yourself quietly with adult toys while the rest of us play in the sand.

            • Jason Hinchliffe

              My presentation has no effect on the validity of my argument.

              • 3lemenope

                If you believe that, you really don’t know the first thing about effective argumentation. Arguments exist only by and in the service of humans. Humans respond not just to substance but also to form. A poor argument is one which fails to persuade, and a poor choice in tone can certainly be a barrier to persuasion.

                • Jason Hinchliffe

                  I’m not concerned with persuading on the internet. The possibility of changing minds here is intensely limited and most people don’t even read what was written, or reframe it as they choose. Really, this is just for my own amusement.

                • 3lemenope

                  Ah. Well then, you should probably drop the pretense of caring about the quality of the arguments. Amusement doesn’t have to be at others’ expense.

                • Jason Hinchliffe

                  You know what? You’re probably right. Perhaps it’s time to rethink my approach, or perhaps abandon online communications altogether. My coping mechanism for dealing with online-style communication (read: group think, ignoring key premises, stereotyping) has been to become increasingly hostile and derisive. This really creates no benefit for anyone. Cheers.

          • joey_in_NC

            “Evolution did not directly create religion, however, it’s effects set the stage for man to create it, so it played an important but limited role”.

            It’s as if you regard the “effects” of evolution and man to be fundamentally different from each other as opposed to them being different abstractions of the same natural forces at play. Not unless you think that new physical laws actually emerge once man is “created”.

            It’s hard to find materialists who are actually consistent in their philosophy. The rules of the universe don’t change once humans are created.

            • Jason Hinchliffe

              First, well played! Second, that’s not my argument. It’s C Peterson’s rephrased with integrity. Personally, your argument on first blush sounds far more palatable to me. I’ll think on it some more.

              The one thing that jumps into my head immediately, is the ability for man to conceive the impossible. Through our naturally evolved minds, we conceive of that which could never naturally exist. So perhaps no new physical law has been created, but the idea of them has been, and I wonder of that is sufficient to claim that religion is the result of this ability and hence created by man outside of nature, by a force put into motion by nature.

    • S Cruise

      Firstly, I think god belief – or belief in similar “supernatural” forces/entities – came about with our ancestors early attempts to understand the world. I believe it had nothing whatsoever to do with their spirituality. Gods were just simple premises that acted as place holders to help our ancestors understand why they and other things exist. Elaborate mythological stories were created as a result.

      Religion, however, came about through something totally different – and not necessarily spirituality(that would have later, or maybe in tandem, become entwined with religion.)

      Things probably went along these lines:

      1) Gods or similar, being a creative force

      2) Gods or similar, being a controlling force in the environment

      3) Shit happens (dis-empowerment)

      4) Out of ignorance or lack of understanding, look for reason why

      5) Paranoia: point finger at deity (more dis-empowerment & paranoia)

      6) Find ways to counter dis-empowerment/paranoia(religion)

      Humans like to be in control – when they are not in control they feel dis-empowered.

      Religion came about because our ancestors were paranoid about the controlling forces in their environment. To counter the paranoia and dis-empowerment, they came up with rituals and ways to make them feel at ease and in control. Religion empowered them(and paradoxically dis-empowered them).

      Religions are the end result of our early conspiracy theories: where the controlling forces are to blame – or where members of the tribe or neighbouring tribe were responsible for angering the controlling forces.

      Religion was a useful tool invented by our resourceful, but blundering, ancestors. They were designed to counter our ancestors dis-empowerment. Evolution didn’t intend religion.

  • Carla

    There is actual research on this topic. Rather than just hearing your opinions, these videos would serve their purpose much better if you actually researched and gave information. I can think aliens helped us build the pyramids and that we’re going to find an underground civilization on Mars, and I can even make a video about it (or a History Channel TV series…). But without actual evidence, you’re no better than the religious people you’re talking about.

    • Art_Vandelay

      There’s loads of evidence that we evolved as a social, tribal species and that there was an enormous evolutionary advantage for it. There’s also loads of evidence that religion is a product of confirmation bias. Put those two things together and there’s plenty of evidence to support Hemant’s sattement.

      • Carla

        Frankly, I don’t care if he’s right or wrong. But if a guy who writes a blog about being logical is going to make videos talking about things like evolution and religion, I want more science and less opinion.

        • Art_Vandelay

          Seriously? It’s a reasoned opinion based on evolutionary principles that are already well-supported by science. If you think he’s wrong, tell us why but he’s not proposing a new scientific theory here and he’s certainly not claiming any type of absolute certainty. If you actually think the idea that there was an evolutionary advantage to being prone to tribalism is as flimsy as saying that there’s an underground civilization on Mars, you simply have no idea what you’re talking about. His premise is in fact completely logical by the way.

          • Carla

            I’m making a broad comment that these videos should include more than Hemant’s opinion, whether he’s right or wrong or researched or not. I want informational videos in this series, not me taking Hemant’s word for it. Chill out, dude. The fact that people come here to debate doesn’t mean you get to pick a person and start a fight, especially over something I didn’t say. Asking for sources isn’t exactly controversial.

            • Pseudonym

              I’m with you on wanting informational videos, but again, to be fair, these videos never pretend to be anything but someone’s opinion, occasionally informed and occasionally uninformed.

              They are titled “atheist voices”, not “current mainstream scientific consensus”.

      • Pseudonym

        As David Sloan Wilson rightly pointed out, there is a lot of research on the possible evolutionary explanations for religion. There are so many theories that people can cherry-pick whichever one suits their ends.

        However, of the many possible explanations, there is only one theory with any explanatory power. Hence, there’s only one explanation that can legitimately be called a “scientific theory” (as opposed to “speculation”).

        To Hemant’s credit, he qualified everything with “I think”. If he further qualified it by saying that he has no qualifications in evolutionary biology, that would improve the qualification even further, but I think (there are those two words again) this is a minor quibble.

  • C Peterson

    The title screen for the video needs one more figure to the right. A little more upright. A little bit larger head. Knuckles a little farther from the ground. No cross.

  • Tobias 27772

    Humaniods developed the mental capacity to ask existential questions before they developed the means to answer them. In the interim, some of them made up myths to try to make themselves feel better about their insecure world. Religions codified those myths and used them to gain power.

  • observer

    I’ve always thought religion would be an aspect of how a creature gaining sentience would make sense of the world. For whatever reason, supernatural forces apparently made sense to our still developing ancestors.

    But some folks, intentionally or unintentionally, created superstition and gods, either to create a sense of order, or just to gain authority over others.

    But I do wonder, if there would’ve been a chance our species could’ve avoided religion, or if we were bound to get it anyway.

  • R Vogel

    Interesting that you just posted this because I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I respectfully disagree. It seems to me there is some sort of human bias toward religious belief. There are plenty of ways in which humans can create community: familial group, tribe, nation-state, national identity, and yes, Dodgers v Yankees without the need to invent a super natural being(s) to unite them, so I think there is something else going on. In fact religion has historically torn apart many of the traditional community identities, pitting brother against brother, so to speak. Like our herding or hindsight biases (I am a student of behavioral econ), religious bias very well may be vestigial at this point and will eventually fall away, but, in my opinion, it is too pervasive to be dismissed so easily.

    • Jim Jones

      > In fact religion has historically torn apart many of the traditional community identities …

      But then religion fractures into smaller groups. You’d think Islam would be monolithic – it isn’t. It took extraordinary effort over centuries for the RCC to impose itself as the one Christian orthodoxy – and it failed. Even Judaism is fractured and there aren’t that many Jews.

      Everybody wants to be part of a group – but also wants to be a special little snowflake. Ask any minister about the internal politicking in his or her flock.

      • R Vogel

        That is a unquestionable fact, but again, there are plenty of structures for forming communities, and splintering into new ones, without the need for the supernatural. So the explanation seems to be less than satisfying as an explanation for religious belief, as opposed to religions which are clearly vehicles for community.

  • Ian Norton

    I think Hemant’s suggestion that community plays a role in why people are religious is very likely, but if the question is “why did we create religion?”, I think it has more to do with satisfying our need for explanations. When we lacked the tools and scientific method to detect and analyze things, myth was the only answer we had.

    Our nature is not to seek out better explanations, but to solve contradictions, as evidenced by the feeling of cognitive dissonance. When you have a whole network of ideas that make up your world view, it’s much easier to patch a leak with an excuse than it is to forget everything you think you know about the world. It’s easier for our brains to remain delusional than it is to reject everything and start understanding the world from scratch.

    Furthermore, it’s only through adopting philosophical principles that we overcome our nature to remain content. These principles are constantly, blatantly, and zealously attacked by scripture and contemporary believers alike. Ironically, I believe that this inherent aggression towards intellectual progress is a product of a sort of natural selection; religions that allowed criticism and free thought simply ceased to exist, leaving only the most intellectually-hostile and non-falsifiable religions to survive.

    • R Vogel

      I would think all religions need to be non-falsifiable or they would not be a religion, yeah? They would be science. Most religions are based in faith. It is mainly in the 20th century that certain religions have taken this peculiar turn toward trying to make a rational argument for themselves.
      ‘only the most intellectually hostile’ this is probably painting with a rather broad brush, one that might be time and place specific, yeah? I see a lot of western atheists making the perhaps unintended strawman argument that all religions are ‘intellectually hostile’ because of the certain brand religious fundamentalism, primarily in Christianity but also in Islam and Judaism, that has had far too much political power for far too long. My fear is that they may be overlooking and alienating many allies they have in more moderate or progressive religious people who accept the authority of science, support the separation of church and state, and find that brand of fundamentalist religion just as distasteful as you do.

      • Ian Norton

        Well, I know for a fact that the bible contains many falsifiable claims that can easily be proven false. Some of these are even critical to the entire belief system, and yet they are ignored, because of a motivation that I’ve already mentioned.

        Anyway, all religions are the enemy of progress if you accept the philosophy that false information leads to worse decision-making. This is because religion insists on making certain claims undeniable – conflicting information could be vital in making a moral decision, yet it is often discarded because it conflicts with sincerely held, but baseless beliefs.

        For a prime current example, marriage equality – the idea that a perfect God wouldn’t create gay people leads to the belief that homosexuality is a choice, the valid information that homosexuality is biological and not a choice is discarded to protect the idea of a perfect God.

        Also, keep in mind that extremists draw their confidence from the unintentional support from moderates. They gain validation from the people all around the world that announce that faith is a virtue. I know the world would be a much better place if faith was not erroneously treated as good reason to believe something.

  • SJH

    I am reminded of an article I read a while back that might be relevant. It discusses archeological evidence contradicting the notion that a religion develops after a civilization as opposed to civilizations developing around religion.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text

  • John_in_Vegas

    Religion has at its foundation some resolution after death. Whether it’s Native Americans and their spirits of the earth, the Jewish god, ancient Egyptians, or reincarnation, there is a belief that we continue to exist on some level after we die. Self awareness about one’s own mortality is a terrifying and debilitating reality, unless you have a mechanism to compensate. In a world without science and medicine, the supernatural was as good an explanation as any other. It served a purpose to allow humanity to cope with mortality and provide motivation for survival for self and others, which is the main driver of evolution.

  • GCBill

    There is evidence that the propensity for religiosity was probably favored by evolution. Here on Patheos, ScienceOnReligion is an excellent resource if you’re interested in psychological/sociological research in this area. In fact, some theorists have tried to explain how atheism could result from the same pathways that yield religion (and be beneficial in some cases): http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/10/why-are-there-atheists/

  • Mr. Lynne

    You should review the works and videos of Dr. Andy Thompson. There are systems in our psychology and brains that create side-effects that, taken together, explain well how we might be disposed to think of a disembodied mind that is a prime mover around which a community should coalesce.

    2009 talk:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu9eMrg

    More recent talk in 2013:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvXpdUhxF4M

  • SJH

    There is a lot of truth in what you are saying regarding community. I do agree that people innately want to be part of a larger community. The question that arises regarding religion is why have most people throughout history and around the world choose to group themselves based on religion as opposed to any other common belief? Of course, other beliefs have been used such as politics and, ironically, lack of belief but the vast majority have been around religion. It is so constant a theme in society that one has to wonder why. If things were random wouldn’t there be many different forms of binding beliefs and wouldn’t you see more statistical uniformity in various belief structures?

    To further complicate the issue, there is the possibility that civilization can potentially develop after religion (referring to the article I had previously posted below, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text ). So as people realize that their beliefs are similar to those of other people they begin to gather and form societies. This would be opposed to the idea that societies form first and religions are formed by people who want to be part of a community and so follow along.

  • JWatts

    No, religion is a craft made by lazy people that wanted free food for nothing.