Is there any evolutionary value in believing in God(s)?

This one is troubling me. Perhaps non-believing dopers can enlighten me…

Assuming that godzillatemple et al. are correct, and that there is no rational basis for belief in God (or Gods), why would such a large percentage of the (otherwise rational) population appear to act irrationally and maintain such beliefs? It suggests at least a natural propensity, which would mean it is either an evolutionary development or a by-product thereof.

I can see the selective advantage of both conscious thought (formulation of hypotheses in problem solving) and a conscience (sociability and group behaviour), but why as a species would we evolve to hold an irrational belief system? Perhaps it is derived from the benefits of social bonding involved in ritual and culture (but if so couldn’t this be achieved without the need for irrational beliefs)? Could it be that animals with ‘hope’, however irrational, are better survivors?

Any thoughts?

I think your OP mixes more apples and oranges than an Ulster Unionist Festival of Cider.

Evolution describes the origin and development of species according to how well adapted they are to their environment. Belief systems are not within its scope.

If you are asking about the origins of religious thought, it may be that it is simply another consequence of a more complex brain, just like the ability to do maths, and was first triggered by a caveman watching a thunderstorm or something.

However, this is all assuming both that there is no God and that belief in such is irrational, neither of which even an atheist like myself can take for granted in the first place.

I think religion is the side effect of a couple of interacting human drives that actually do have evolutionary benefit: curiousity for pattern recognition and need for heirarchy. These drives are strong enough that when we don’t understand something we feel the need to make something up.

But of course IANAAnthropologist.

It all boils down to fear of the unknown. People find comfort in creating scenarios that will protect them from the unknown.

Religion has many advantages for social evolution (i.e., teading to greater “progress” - where progress is defined as increasing ability of humans to interact with each other in mutually advantageous ways). These advantages exist whether or not the religions in question are true.

  1. Religions provide a set of rewards and punishments, re-enforcing socially desireable behaviour;

  2. Religions provide an ultimate authority to appeal to, to settle difficult and potentially devisive disputes;

  3. Religions provide a locus of belonging greater than a biological family or clan, enabling larger groups to co-operate together for mutual benefit.

Naturally, all of these things can prove either a benefit or a drawback, depending on conditions. I am inclined to think that they were a greater benefit early in the history of human society.


Do we have any real world examples to see what these “advantages” are compared to a secular society? Do secular societies lacked cohesion? Honestly curious.

You’re right, my OP was not as clear as I would have liked it to be - maybe that reflects my confusion over the subject. My use of ‘irrational belief system’ in particular was misguided. Perhaps propensity for irrational thought, or something, would convey it better.

I am definitely not asking about the origins of religious thought. I see how a sentient species that does not fully understand its environment could consider greater things to be at work, possibly leading to the concept of deities, as in your caveman-thunderstorm example. But this seems fairly rational to me and belief in the Thunder God is likely to be discarded with increasing understanding of meteorology.

From what I do understand of evolution, I agree with you that belief systems are not within its scope. However, I do consider thought processes, memory and the development of a consciousness to have been evolutionary developments.

What I find counter-intuitive (and thus the reason for my post) is that a conscious mind that naturally developed the capability of hypothesis, analysis and informed decision-making would be so inclined to adopt beliefs that are contrary to available evidence and experience.

I realise I am making large assumptions. I also take nothing for granted, especially the (non-) existence of God. If God does exist then that’s nailed it, end of debate. As for whether belief in God is irrational – there seems to be plenty of contributors to this board that suggest that to be the case (and argue it very well as far as I can see). I guess this question is really aimed at them and so perhaps I can get away with the premise for now.

I don’t think there are any truly secular societies.

Well, I think it’s a survival trait that developed over the millenia due to religious zealots who killed/kill those who didn’t/don’t believe as they do.

People on e whole are gregarious and do a lot better when part of a society. Maybe religion tends to enable people of the same tribe to work better together. That would tend to better assure survival to child-bearing age and be an advantage.

In a diverse society it seems to me to not have that effect. But in western society we have only had diversity of any kind for such a short time that it’s too early to tell whether or not religion is a help or a hinderance.

If you look at the progression or development of societies through history, it is speculated that they developed in this order:

Band - Tribe - Chiefdom - State.

Organized religions have their root in “chiefdom” level societies; they come to full development in “state” level societies.

Societies at the “band” or “tribe” level generally don’t possess independantly developed organized religions, though in more modern times those that have survived into the present day may very well adopt the religions developed by state-level societies elsewhere.

So, to answer the question, societies like (for example) the !Kung san of the Kalahari desert do not possess what we call “religion” (though they may have shamanism/local worship/ancestor worship, or have adopted religions from elsewhere). These non-religious, or more precisely pre-religious, societies clearly lack cohesion when compared with state-level societies.

Of course, this raises a chicken-and-egg problem: do more complex societies develop organized religion as one of their atributes, or is organized religion a tool/process by which societies become more organized (self-conciously or not?) I am inclined towards the latter, based on historic evidence.

Take for example Islam. Pre-Islamic Arabia was at a tribal level, or more accurately, at a chiefdomship level. The advent of Islam seems to have enabled the scattered tribes of Arabia to develop quite rapidly to a state-level society, by overcoming barriers to organization and trust within Arabia (and animating the resulting organization with crusading zeal).

The pre-Islamic religious situation was similar to that of other tribal or chiefly peoples in contact with state-level societies: certain tribes had adopted one or another of the religions developed elsewhere (primarially Judaism and Christianity), or had some sort of local worship/shamanism. The development of an indigineous organized religion seems to have given them a tremendous boost, in terms of cohesion.

The same could be said for atheism, insofar as people can use atheism to avoid certain difficult moral issues and the responsiblities they entail. People can take great comfort in believing that there’s no supreme being to which they must ultimately report.

Mind you, I’m not using this as an argument against atheism, and I’m not saying that atheists adopt that worldview so as to avoid morality. I’m just pointing out that the desire to create comforting scenarios can lead to atheism just as easily as it can lead to theism.

Need I point out that atheistic regimes have killed far more people than religous groups or governments ever have?

Of course, you could easily substitute “political” for “religious” in my post and there you go. I thought we were talking about religion, though.

A very good British science prog called Horizon did a episode about this recently God on the Brain

Interesting stuff though

We are, and that’s the point. The largest mass killings have occured in societies where atheism dominates. Granted, there’s a political component to this as well, but the same holds true for those societies wherein religion was used as an excuse for killing people.

The number of killings recorded in history due to religious reasons is actually quite small. The largest mass killings in the world were actually performed under atheistic societies, and are enormous in their magnitude. So no, I don’t think one can resort to the claim that theism dominates because of “religious zealots who killed/kill those who didn’t/don’t believe as they do.”

Actually, the knowledge (as opposed to the belief) that this screwup of a world is all we get isn’t really comforting to us. Plus, most atheists don’t believe in an absolute, writ-in-metaphorical-stone moral code, hence we don’t feel guilty for violating it. Do you practice your religion of choice to assuage fears of psychotic rampaging invisible pink unicorns?

Hmm. One can be an atheist and also have the belief that all non-communists deserve death, for instance. It is therefore rather disingenious to put killings committed by atheists who were zealots of a non-religious nature with killings committed by religious people for specifically religious reasons. Of course, since the fundamental bit about most religions is love, peace, weed, etc, it could easily be said that religious killings would have taken place regardless of the shape or presence of the idol. Do we agree that zealots of any stripe suck to have in charge?

I think that’s exactly right. But it doesn’t seem that god belief per se is a trait that can be passed on genetically. The specifics of a person’s religious beliefs seem to be mainly influenced by environment. Perhaps the propensity to develop religious beliefs can be passed on genetically, but not any specific belief system.

I agree with this.

But this I do not agree with. First of all, “The number of killings recorded in history due to religious reasons is actually quite small” is patently false by any reasonable definition of “small”. Second, you compare killings “due to religious reasons”, to killings “under atheistic societies”. Surely you can see how the 2 are dissimilar. I’m not aware of anyone ever being killed “in the name of atheism”. And if you want to make a strictly numerical comparison of killings in atheist societies to killings in theist societies, you would have to compare the deaths in those Communist regimes that were officially atheist to all other killings throughout history, since there haven’t been any other atheist societies. So while your article points out some truly staggering individual massacres that occured under Communist regimes, when you stack that up against all other killings -ever- (especially when taken as a percentage of the total population), I think your conclusion is unwarranted.

I see you weasel worded this with lots of “cans” so you can’t be accused of actually saying that atheists are immoral.