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LINK The evolution of religion: Why belief systems are literally false and metaphorically true

Where do your beliefs come from? There's a school of thought that sees religion as a mind virus that wastes the time and effort of human beings, but evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein offers a more reasonable explanation: "belief systems have flourished because they have facilitated the interests of the creatures involved,"

zblaze 7 June 21

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Here's how I see religion:

  1. myth
  2. religion
  3. psychology

I think the Hebrew scriptures took myths and made them literal. In turn, psychology takes religion and converts it back to myth.


I reckon that religion did offer certain advantages - community cohesion, common rules for certain things like marriage, there is definitely a framework there for a lot of beliefs which could be widespread across many different feudal communities.

Denker Level 7 June 23, 2018

I tell my students that myth has few facts but many truths and ask them to explain what I mean. The "facts" are allegorical in that some aspects of myth are based on historical events, i.e. the war between the Olympians and the Titans is allegory for the conquest of the Pelasgians by the invading Aryans. The "truths" are aspects of the human condition (however one defines it) that are embodied in the myths. Demeter refused to give up searching for her daughter, Persephone, and parents still seek lost children. Myths are the underpinning of religion and each religion has the same myths because of the functions that they serve--not just in religious sense, but beyond.



That is exactly how I view religions: They are wrong, erroneous - if taken literally; but they are, or have been, adaptive in societies without strong secular institutions.
One of my intellectual heroes, David S. Wilson, expressed it as follows in his seminal book : "Darwin's Cathedral. Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society"

"... there are many [...] situations in which it can be adaptive to distort reality. Even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. " (p.41)

"Something as elaborate - as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming - as religion would not exist if it didn't have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. (p.159)

There is a whole school of thought in studies of religion that treats religions as adaptations , not just by-products of mental mechanisms (Ara Norenzayan: "Big Gods", Matt Rossano: "Supernatural Selection" )
If religions were nothing but harmful viruses of the mind, natural selection would have weeded them out long ago. Or we would witness an arms race between religious memes (the parasites) and the human mind (the host). But that is not the case.

Matias Level 8 June 22, 2018

Thanks for the book suggestions. Have you read
"The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing" by John C. Wathey ?

@skado Not yet. But sounds very interesting: "The author interprets our various conceptions of God in biological terms as illusory supernormal stimuli that fill an emotional and cognitive vacuum left over from infancy" ---.
The only problem I see about his approach is that he focuses on "Big God" religions, but most lesser known religions do not have a 'big' deity in its center, but are dealing with spirits of ancestors, or witchcraft.
I think the best introduction into the evolution of religions is "Religion explained" by Pascal Boyer (an anthropologist who gives lots of examples from Africa and Asia of 'little' religions.)

Thanks, I’ll check it out.

Religion seems to have been a vehicle suited to the times it thrived in. How could that be? Was it a crude civilising force suited to a crude and barbaric time? Maybe. I wonder could an alternative reality be even considered as a possible different way of living in the past. Maybe not. I can’t help conclude that the stages human history went through – from myth to religion- were the only possible vehicles available to express the aspirations and profound questions of people in the past.


“Belief systems” could include a lot more than just religion. There are philosophical systems and political belief systems for example. A devout Marxist would survive better under communism I would think.

As I see it, religion is more of a behavior pattern than a set of beliefs.
I’m thinking that you could generalize and say that human behavior patterns exist for reasons that were once good reasons, and might still be good in some ways, but we get to decide if they are good for us.

A Christian once told me (when I was pagan) that he "wished" that he could be a pagan because then, he could do anything that he wanted. Really? First, pagans have ethics and second, what the hell do you want to do? I still wonder if he meant the he could be sexually promiscuous or there were darker aspects. If his religious beliefs keep him in check, then he needs religion.

@Gwendolyn2018 Interesting idea. Maybe organized religions really do serve a purpose in restraining selfish behavior that harms others. It is sad to think that a person would need the fear of hell in order to keep from doing criminal stuff. What kind of life would that be? There must be something better.


this makes a lot of sense. to be in good standing in the religious community certainly adds to your standing in the political or business community.


Excellent. Thanks for posting. And it is a lot more complex than can be stated in a 4 minute video.

skado Level 9 June 21, 2018

B.F. Skinner did research on pigeons in a controlled environment called a Skinner Box. From Google: "Skinner published his study on a group of pigeons that showed even animals are susceptible to the human condition that is superstition. ... What observers of the pigeons found showed the birds developing superstitious behavior, believing that by acting in a particular way, or committing a certain action, food would arrive."

Wictionary: superstition is "A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one's behavior in some magical or mystical way."

is a superstition. Animals are also superstitious. It is to know what is and what is not.

EdEarl Level 8 June 21, 2018
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