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Why not evolution?

It's seems so counter-intuitive to me that so many of the people who enthusiastically support evolution over creationism when regarding the existence of humans, then turn back to folklore in preference to evidence when it comes to the creation of religion itself.

Please help me understand.

What is your foremost reason for not believing that religion is a product or byproduct of evolution?

Why not Evolution?

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skado 9 Nov 15

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A distinction should be made, in my opinion, between the behavioral and biological sciences. Religion is mapped into the former, and while we may say that religions have changed over time, or even that human behavior has ‘evolved,’ there is no genetic information to be passed. In other words, there is no religion gene any more than there is a God gene.

My question is, why do you believe that? Could you direct me to some scientific source that acknowledges a consensus that there is no religion gene? What I read says that while there is no gene for French, there is a gene for language, and similarly, while there is no gene for Buddhism, there is a "gene" for religion. That is to say, that we have a genetic predisposition to form religions, and then we apply the specific forms relevant to our particular culture.

@skado There is no language gene, complex emergent properties such as language, are aways the result of several genetically preformed characteristics, which themselves will almost certainly result from the effects of whole groups of genes interacting with each other, and with environmental factors.

Siam cats, do have a single gene for dark fur, but it only expresses itself if they get cold during development, therefore it is perfectly possible to have a pale Siam cat, you just keep the kitten warm.

There are therefore few inevitable paths leading to any inevitable aspects of religion, just as the needs we have to communicate can be filled by spoken language, writen language, and sign language, and as in the case of hermits, we do not even need to use language at all. Genetic determinism certainly exists, but it is never as simple or as inevitable as a 'gene' for language or a 'gene' for religion.

And there is no reason to think that the genetic needs, for what is generally termed, religion, can not be filled by other means, just as written and sign language can fill the need for communication, just as speech, and bread from Canada can fill our hunger just as well as meat for the wildlife of Africa, we evolved to eat. So there is no reason to think that philosophy, science, litrature, arts, sport, nationalism, etc. can not meet our genetic need for religion.

@skado Your request to provide evidence of a negative (i.e., that something unproven does not exist) reminds me of the theists and religionists who demand proof of the nonbeliever that God does not exist. But as we all should know by now, the burden of proof lies with the one making the assertion. And whether it be a deity or a “God gene,” we await further evidence. Of one thing we may be certain, the discovery of such a gene would immediately prompt the response from theists that “God put it there!”

Please allow me to clarify. I didn't request evidence of a negative. I requested evidence of a consensus in scientific circles that no evidence exists to support the evolutionary roots of religion. There are plenty of studies and articles from reliable sources that talk about this question, and the general consensus, it appears to me, is that such evidence does exist.

If no such consensus existed, the question would still be asked, and the answer would sound something like, "I'm not aware of sufficient evidence to support that hypothesis". But that's not what they say. Every place I can find that speaks to that question says there is a consensus, and it is that the evidence points to deep evolutionary roots for religion. If you're waiting to hear about it, there's no need to wait any longer - it's as close as your computer keyboard. No need to take my word for it. Ask the magic box. Tell me what it says.

@skado My apologies, I stand corrected.

As far as the magic box goes, I must have a special filter as it returned one of my favorite personalities on the planet, poking fun at the whole notion of a genetic explanation for religion or belief in God. Enjoy!


Hopefully there will always be room for humor.


I don't believe that religion built the boats, but it has a lot to do with how they are steered.


@TheMiddleWay Thank you very much.



lol…some of the choices are “rich”. I have not seen enough to convince me that evolution is responsible, but do believe there is evidence to support the idea that there is a basic human predilection to believe in something “greater” than ourselves, in spite of there being nothing to support the actual existence of same.


I'm inclined to believe that religion is only one possible manifestation of a more fundamental tribalism, or group-cohesive tendency, that gives highly-organized, cooperative groups an advantage over smaller, less complex groups and individuals.


Popular science writer Carl Zimmer said that VMAT2 can be characterized as a gene that accounts for less than one percent of the variance of self-transcendence scores. These, Zimmer says, can signify anything from belonging to the Green Party to believing in ESP. Zimmer also points out that the God Gene theory is based on only one unpublished, unreplicated study.

The two main schools of thought hold: (1) either that religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage or (2) that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations.
Stephen Jay Gould, for example, saw religion as an exaptation or a spandrel, in other words: religion evolved as byproduct of psychological mechanisms that evolved for other reasons.

I vote for reason number two.

Sounds like you are not one of the folks who believe religion is just a bad idea.

@skado Who, me? I hate authoritarian, dogmatic, proselytizing and politicized religion. I try to subdue my tendency to anti-theism in respect to the live-and-let-live believers who keep their belief in the private realm - that includes many good people.

What I'm trying to learn is not whether atheists like or dislike religion, but whether they believe the tendency for human populations (not individuals) to form religions is favored genetically, and if not, why do they think not, when apparently, most scientists do.


I live just fine without religion while fully accepting that evolution is an active force in nature.
Sure religion evolves, just look how the Jewish religion evolved into Christianity and in time into Islam.
However, just because something evolves doesn't mean is fit to survive.
Religion is fine for individuals so long as they don't attempt to inflict it on everyone else.
However individuals vote, so religion does affect government and national policy, exclusively in a negative way.
Decision making is only assisted by information, faith in the supernatural has no place in decision making. Perhaps faith in your fellow citizens, or your system of government, or the validity of Science has some merit, but not faith in divine intervention, or "The Secret" or any other form of Mysticism.
Advocating on behalf of religion is simply advocating for Conservatism to me.
All negative social effects come from Conservatism, Fascist are Conservatives, Marxist are Conservatives, Maoist are Conservatives, Christian Nationalist are Conservatives, Republicans are Conservatives, and the racist old Dixiecrats from the South were Conservatives... do you see where I'm coming from?
Democratic Socialist, Progressives, and Liberals are NOT conservative.
This is why the Soviet Union failed to enlist the aid of the American political left, they believed the Republican Right-Wing Propaganda that claimed non-Conservatives were aligned with Russia and they wasted decades of time and millions of dollars attempting to corrupt us, only to realize that the Republicans were far far far easier to seduce.
Anti-evolution is nothing more than Conservatives insisting that authority does not come from facts and observable science, it comes from political and religious "truths" that are pretty easy to debunk.
Even Marxist hated evolution, in their ideology everyone is equal, not in the sense we're all equal under the law here in the United States, but literally everyone is equal so they rejected evolution ages ago.
How insanely Conservative of the Marxist.

Thanks for commenting but that leaves me uncertain where you stand on this question.
Do you think humans are evolved to create religions or that religion is just a bad idea that humans thought up, like reverse mortgages?

@skado Reverse mortgages all the way.

Thank you for mentioning one thing so many 'conservatives' fail to see, the supposedly ultra left communism is just as much conservative as Fascism. All the forms seeking control is a conservative form of government. However, as a total advocate of the overpopulation issues eventually total control will be what is needed to reign in the overwhelming problems brought on by too many of us. I will post some quotes that might be worth (fun) to read.


I'm not sure I understand the question. Evolution is a natural process that continues to exist as long as there are living organisms. Religion is man made, and without the existence of humans it is non existent.

Tejas Level 7 Nov 15, 2021

Everything I read these days in science journals seems to assume that the capacity for religion is an evolved trait, or at least a byproduct of other evolved traits, but a lot of atheists and agnostics seem to believe it was just a bad idea that someone made up, and should be considered nothing other than a product of ignorance, greed, and gullibility. Which do you think is true, and why?

@skado I think it is a made up idea or philosophy gone bad. People have a yearning to know things and see patterns in things even if there is nothing there. Folk lore, religion, science fiction and the supernatural are all things people come up with as a way to explain things they are incapable of understanding.

Very understandable, but are you aware of the growing scientific consensus today that we are evolved to create religions?

@skado Obviously religion is an evolved trait or else animals would engage in it. Just as obviously, with the world of information at their fingertips, one believes out of gullibility, social pressures, and confirmation bias, oh, and laziness in not using the available information. Or stupidity in restricting ones sources of information, this being done to avoid cognitive dissonance.

@skado Because the idea that religion is an evolved trait, and the idea that, it was just a bad idea that someone made up, are not contradictions. Since the capacity and ability to make up bad ideas is and evolved trait, but that does not mean that they are not bad ideas. The same mistake appears most of all in your second point, asking if religion is just a product of criminals, which seems to assume that criminals are not themselves products of evolution.

My desire to over eat, and put on weight , is a product of evolution, dating from the days when good meals were hard to find. But that does not mean that it is necessary, inevitable or good to overeat. My doctor tells me that if I put on weight, it will make me unfit, unhappy and shorten my life, so it is not good. I managed to stop doing it and lost weight, so it is not necessary or inevitable either.

And the doctors reasons for saying that are many, but the greatest is the observation that people who do not overeat, are usually fitter, happier and longer lived. So is the observation that societies which are less religious, and more secular, are generally happier and score higher on every feature of societal health, such as life expectancy, low criminality, better education, fewer unwanted pregnancies etc. the list is endless.

@Tejas the premise here is that evolution is responsible for all the “made up” beliefs.

@MsKathleen Skado himself calls it the "capacity for religion" but the, capacity for, is not religion, any more than the capacity of my belly for large meals means that I over-eat.

@Fernapple I suppose I simplified it wrong.

@Fernapple And whatever we evolve to do it is a conscious action we take based on a conscious effort and decision we make, for which we are responsible. That makes us very different from any other living creatures.

It’s not exactly that evolution is responsible for all made up beliefs themselves - it’s more that evolution is responsible for producing in humans a persistent proclivity for making up beliefs, or more precisely stated, for making up practices of a religious nature. The phrase “capacity for religion” is shorthand for “capacity for and (as TMW said) an impetus for religion to form.”

@skado yes, I understood that, but tried to simplify the explanation…wrongly done, though.


There actually does seem to be an evolutionary bias to believe in invisible beings and conscious action on the part of inanimate objects, e.g. "That rock looks like it's going to fall on someone", "Those clouds are going to rain on us," "This car refuses to start when I'm late for work." This seems to be, from what I've read (I seem to recall this was in The Selfish Gene, but I could be wrong) because humans who attributed a rustle in the grass to a predator, and acted accordingly, had an evolutionary advantage over those who said, "Well, it might just be the wind." If it is the wind, there's no penalty for acting as if it's a predator; but if it's a predator, there is an evolutionary penalty for acting as if it's just the wind. Those who tended to attribute some cause to that rustle in the grass tended to survive and breed more than the others. This led to believing in some causation and motive to everything; and if something is caused, someone must be causing it. (Or so we believed before we gained an understanding of natural processes.)

That evolutionary bias, I believe, is now a detriment to our species, since our large forebrains worked out the causes of so many natural phenomena; and, knowing the purely natural causes, we should be able to discard the belief in "someone" causing it. For instance, we know that gravity keeps the planets in their orbits; we don't need to believe there are angels pushing them around. But many seem to want to believe in the angels, nevertheless.

It was perhaps in The God Delution, and also in, Unweaving The Rainbow, but certainly R. Dawkins has widely recounted the idea, though, if I remember correctly, he did always say that he did not originate it.


(Posted below but will repeat.) Because the idea that religion is an evolved trait, and the idea that, it was just a bad idea that someone made up, are not contradictions. Since the capacity and ability to make up bad ideas is and evolved trait, but that does not mean that they are not still bad ideas. The same mistake appears most of all in your second point, asking if religion is just a product of criminals, which seems to assume that criminals are not themselves in many ways products of evolution.

My desire to over-eat, and put on weight, is a product of evolution, dating from the days when good meals were hard to find. But that does not mean that it is necessary, inevitable or good to over-eat. My doctor tells me that if I put on weight, it will make me unfit, unhappy and shorten my life, so it is not good. I managed to stop doing it and lost weight, so it is not necessary or inevitable either.

And the doctor's reasons for saying that I should not over-eat are many, but the greatest is the observation that people who do not over-eat, are usually fitter, happier and longer lived. So is the observation that societies which are less religious, and more secular, are generally happier and score higher on every feature of societal health, such as life expectancy, low criminality, better education, fewer unwanted pregnancies, less alcoholism etc. the list is endless. While the fact that virtually no observable single feature of religion, is common to all of them, also proves that none of it is inevitable.

Good points. I don't believe that religion itsrlf was "bad" as it formed (itself an evolution) as it was simply inaccurate due to poor data. If we look at some of the great scientific break throughs in history, we see that they often also included inaccuracies. Galileo's sun centered solar system was a tremendous break through over the previous earth center one, but he assumed circular orbits which didn't allow the math to come out perfectly. The configuration of the atom has gone through tremendous changes from a ball which contained the protons, neutrons, and the electrons to one separating the electron orbiting a nucleus of protons and neutrons. The protons and neutrons have gone through farther revisions so that one might wonder if there is anything solid at all in an atom. We might be able to find certain scientists who initially were resistant to accepting these new models based on new data for any number of reasons. Holding onto older traditional understandings may have certain similarities to the reticence of religious folks who resist certain scientific understandings of our world (although, I admit, some of their stated reason appear ridiculous).


If I may, I think what you meant to say is that there is an evolutionary impetus for religion to form.

As others have pointed out, everything human is due to evolution so it's a bit of a tautological statement to lump religion in with as well.

So what I think you're asking, correct me if I'm wrong, is why do people malign the religious as ignorant and stupid when there is a strong evolutionary impetus for religion to form even with the knowing and intelligent.

You have said it better than I did - the evolutionary impetus for religion to form. And why people malign for an evolved impetus is certainly a closely related question. But my specific question is why do so many non-religious people seem to be unaware of, or indeed outright deny the existence of this particular evolutionary impetus? Why are they so resistant to the science on this question? Is it the influence of Dawkins on the culture at large, or do they know something I don't?


Religion is certainly a byproduct of evolution, as is everything else in human culture, which is an emergent property of evolution. Silly question why would anyone who accepts evolution think anything else ?



"Religion was invented by rich people to keep poor people from killing them."

And leaders to keep their flock obedient, fearful not of them but of an unseen more powerful entity. And a promise if they were nice and obedient a part of them would live forever. It has worked fairly well for eons.

What basis do you have for that remark?

@Alienbeing .

  1. Means, motive, and opportunity
  2. I read it on the bathroom wall of La Zona Rosa in Austin Texas around 1985. Everything written on that wall was, and is 100% true.

@OldWiseAss Who can question a source such as you cited? Not me.


Non of the above. An article in the Humanist magazine once quoted under the heading Existential Risk Analysis that it has been shown some form of religious thought is a universal phenomena. This field is being taught in places as Cambridge and Harvard.


I chose not to vote because I don't disagree with the promise. Religion is a paradigm. Similar paradigms - even those that have flaws - create cohesion in defining rolls among members of the group allowing the group to function better overall. Some members of the group may be considered more expendable than others indicating that the benefits are not necessarily evenly divided, but if the group as a whole is benefited, the evolutionary advantage is satisfied.

I don't believe that religions at their origins are necessarily a lot like they are today. For one thing, those who began religions thousands of years ago didn't know even a fraction of what we know today. For another, the world those people lived in was very different and survival needs in particular were much different. What might be the same is their need to feel they had some control over their world and some way to understand what happens around them.

One last thought: all social animals have some sort of hierarchy which defines certain rolls and behaviors acceptable for members of the society. These rules aren't "fair" or equal for all members, but they do generally benefit the survival and continuation of the group. In the fossil record, there appears to be a couple examples of smaller sized social animal species (typically predator species) which replaced larger solitary ones. The implication might be that socially cooperative species were more successful than larger solitary ones.


What exactly do you mean by product or byproduct of evolution? Evolution is a result of random genetic mutations that, sometimes, provide benefits to the organism that increase the likelihood those genes will be passed on to offspring. I personally do not believe there is a gene that causes religiosity (considering people can be both religious and non-religious over a period of time), but I suppose there are genetic traits that increase the probability or propensity for one to believe.
If you mean it's a byproduct because religion came about as a result of our evolution, then, sure, but that's literally true of every single thing ever created or changed by humans, so it's really a non-staement at that point.

What I mean by product or byproduct is adaptation or spandrel. As I understand it, the dominant scientific view is divided into two camps. The adaptationists, like E. O. Wilson, who believe religion is a direct product of natural selection and therefore adaptive. The spandrelists, like Stephen J. Gould, think it is the byproduct of evolution known as a spandrel - a trait that is not itself adaptive but is the necessary result of the confluence of two or more other traits which are themselves adaptive.

I'm not aware of any significant contingent of scientists who think the only connection evolution has to religion is that humans are a product of evolution, because that would, as you say, be a non-statement.

You said it well - "genetic traits that increase the probability or propensity for one to believe". That's what I'm talking about. Whether they be in the form of an adaptation or a spandrel, or even an exaptation, they are still a force to be reckoned with. This poll is confirming what I suspected, that the most common reason for non-believers to think religion is not an evolved trait is because they are convinced it is only arbitrary criminal behavior, and they apparently don't keep up with the current relevant science. Or maybe, as Paul4747 suggested, it would just be too depressing to contemplate.

@skado But even as you explain it here, it seems anything could easily be classified as a spandrel (at minimum), so I still don't know that you're saying much with that claim. Can you come up with something humans built or do that couldn't be described this way?

I think the spandrel idea is not yet as well-established as some other aspects of evolution. And I'm no expert - I'm just reporting what I read. You might find reliable answers more quickly by searching other available sources. There's a lot of material out there that goes into more detail than I can. That said, I'm happy to share what I am aware of... to the best of my understanding.

I believe it is extremely well-established that some traits are adaptive - that is to say that they confer benefits that help the individual get his/her genes into the next generation. And when those genes do get into the next generation they reproduce that same trait in those offspring - the trait that helped them reproduce in the first place, so what works, keeps working.

It is however, relatively rare that a mutation confers a benefit. Most often the mutation has a neutral effect, or sometimes a negative effect, in which case the carrier is less likely to reproduce and the negative trait drifts out of the gene pool.

The neutral traits, having no effect on one's ability to reproduce, may linger in the gene pool, doing no harm, or may eventually drift out, having no benefit.

A third category, that I believe was proposed by Gould, is a trait that does linger in the gene pool, but not because it is adaptive in itself, but because it is a byproduct of two or more other traits which, when combined in an individual, cause this trait. As long as the other two traits remain adaptive, the third trait will persist, even though it may not confer benefits.

I have recently read another description of spandrels which I hadn't heard before, and I don't know if it is accurate, but it applies that word to traits that were adaptive at one time, but because of environmental changes or whatever, they are no longer adaptive. In any case, a spandrel, if indeed such a thing is real, may be of no benefit to the individual or to the species, even though it is a result of evolutionary forces.

So the first category of traits that would not be called a spandrel would be those that are directly adaptive. Any single mutation that confers an elevated capacity or propensity to get one's genes into the next generation is not a spandrel.

The second category (as I understand it) would be those random mutations that cause changes which are neither beneficial nor deleterious. They are not spandrels because they do not owe their existence to other mutations which are beneficial - they are the direct result of a single mutation, which happens to have no influence on reproduction.

I can't give concrete examples because I haven't studied genetics, but I'm sure that information is available if anyone is interested in digging for it. My main interest is just how it impacts philosophy, so I don't catalog many practical examples in memory. My interest in talking about it on this site is to bring to people's awareness science they may not have known about which may impact their worldview, so they can then explore it on their own. So often, atheists make the split from religion, and then go on living their lives as blissfully unaware of current science as any religious believer, even while thinking they are "on the side of science".

ALL the science I can find on the subject (and I actively look for competing views) says religion or the general tendency toward religion in the human population at large (individuals will vary) is a result of biocultural evolution. Or as Wilson might say - sociobiological evolution. I have seen NO scientific studies that demonstrate any kind of support whatsoever for the notion (very popular among atheists) that religion has no evolutionary roots and was originated only as a scheme to defraud.

Another part of my motivation for posting this kind of information is so that if my own biases have blinded me to contrary information, others may bring it to my attention, but so far, they haven't, so I am left to think my assumptions may be correct.

@skado I appreciate all that, but none of that was in dispute [with me]. My question does remain unanswered, though. Can you think of anything that humans do that can't be tied to evolutionary biology?

Ok I think I get what you’re asking now.

As far as I know, every physical form of, and every behavior of every living thing was directly or indirectly created by the collective forces of evolution, and by no other means.

But that is not to say that every behavior is adaptive. Some are adaptive. Some are maladaptive. Some start as one and transition to the other. Some are neutral. And some have no more connection to evolution than the fact that evolution bestowed upon at least one animal a degree of agency, by which it might choose to do things that benefit neither itself nor its species.

So my claim that religion is an “evolved” trait is shorthand for... I think religion was either directly adaptive in our ancestral environment, or it is a byproduct of other traits that were, but it is not freely optional (species-wide) like having the agency necessary to choose thievery as a vocation.

The difference this makes is that if religion were nothing but common thievery, it could be relatively easy to deal with. Pass laws. Build cultural consensus against. Whatev.

But if religious behavior is driven by genetically implanted imperatives, laws or cultural assaults will be mostly a waste of energy.

Maybe more importantly, if we are still receiving benefits from this adaptation... it might be terribly unwise to try to drive it out of use (in addition to being impossible).

And thirdly, beating people up for doing what their genes are telling them to do is profoundly unkind, unhelpful and counterproductive.

The irony here is that religion itself is mostly a system that helps us curb other evolved traits that are no longer suitable for current conditions. The hope is that it should be done gently though, not harshly, as too many practitioners unfortunately do.

And if, as some claim, we have other mechanisms in place now that do the same thing just as well and without the attendant attraction for criminal opportunists, then so be it. I don’t think that’s the case but I could be wrong. But my prediction is that, in any case, religious practice will not go away, because it’s not just a bad idea - it’s in our genes.

@skado Oh, I see one of our disconnects: you believe in agency where there is no science to back it up. If you wish people to research and adhere to scientific principles, that may be step one. If there is a benefit to recognizing religion is different (and better) than other things I've described as being a result of evolutionary biology (i.e. all things) then we should first dispense with the notion that we have free will so we can evaluate those differences logically.

Fair enough. It’s an area I’m definitely not up to speed on.

But I think that's possibly a detour through a briar patch that may not be necessary. Let's figure out whether it is, first, and then, if it is necessary, we can go there.

I could have made my argument without bringing up the subject of agency. I used it as an example, but I could have used different examples.

With or without agency, the point rests entirely on how tightly bound to any adaptation a given trait is. To use a different set of examples, I'm going to have a much more difficult time talking myself out of breathing occasionally than I would have talking myself out of going sailing occasionally.

Both desires can be traced eventually back to evolution, as everything can. But some are much more deeply embedded than others.

There simply are different levels of pressure that evolution uses to push us this way and that. If sailing were to be banned, I would survive just fine. If my breathing were to be forcibly stopped I would die immediately. These are two different domains, with two different intensities of imperative, both given to us by evolution, but with very different consequences.

Those differences exist. And they matter.

Resources spent trying to get the culture to stop smoking, to use yet a different set of examples, have resulted in a steady decrease in smoking.

Resources spent trying to curb marital infidelity, on the other hand...

have probably been wasted.

@skado In no way would I describe breathing as a desire, or relatable to the desire to sail, as the cessation of one of them cannot be accomplished by inaction. That aside, I think I get your point, but I don't think it allows us to escape the reality of free will being illusory. In your last two examples, smoking vs cheating, one who believes in agency may see those as different, possibly because of the type of behavior it is, I'm not sure, but from the perspective of someone who recognizes there is no will, these campaigns have different outcomes simply because one happened to be a more convincing argument to the subconscious minds of more people. Is it because people who cheat already don't think it's wrong, so it's very difficult to convince them it is, whereas people may start to smoke before they grasp how dangerous it is and then can sometimes be convinced to stop? We can't know for sure, but that's an educated guess. The point of all that, however, is that it likely doesn't matter how tightly bound to any adaptation a given trait is because we're not actually choosing anything.

At this point, we have gone on so many tangents and muddied the water that I'm not exactly sure the point you're making here. Is it simply that religion may be more adaptive and possibly beneficial than we [atheists] think/admit, and that we shouldn't be so quick to want to dispense of it?
If that's the case, I have a hard time seeing that, even if your claims about it being more adaptive than other human creations, it follows logically that we preserve/revere (or whatever you're suggesting we do) it. For instance, being a light colored moth had to be near the top of the charts of traits that were tightly bound to adaptation, but when trees started getting covered with soot during the Industrial Revolution, would it have been prudent for moths to wish to preserve their light coloring? Certainly not. I mean you even said it yourself, something may have been adaptive at one time and no longer is. So if you're trying to first convince people religion is adaptive, then connect the dots between that and 'we shouldn't wish to dispense of it' (again, not sure if that's your point), you would need to also show it's still beneficial (which would be an incredibly tall order).

I think I've probably gone too far before first verifying what your actual argument is, so I'll pause here.

In the context of this post, I'm not prescribing any particular path of action, like preserving the status quo, etc.

The items I'm claiming are:

  1. There is a popular belief among people who identify as atheist or agnostic that religion had its genesis in nothing more than the intent of certain humans to defraud other humans (as supported robustly by this poll).

  2. The current working assumption among a majority of scientists in related fields is that religion had its genesis in natural selection (a fact that anyone with access to the internet can verify in less than five minutes).

  3. Atheists/Agnostics are not only carrying beliefs about this issue that are unsupported by science, they are actively resistant to relinquishing those beliefs when the facts are brought to their attention.

  4. In this regard, they are no less believers in fictitious narratives than those they criticize for the same thing.

I'm not so much trying to change that as to understand why it is that way.


Religion is a product of evolution - - a waste product. Improved cognitive capabilities can confer improved survival. The process of correlating abstractions, for example: hearing a twig snap under the weight of a stalking predator signals it's a good idea to try to escape. Having seen what predators do once, one seeks to avoid becoming prey. This gives rise to superstition, and that becomes formalized as religion.

See my reply above! Great minds think alike...

Do you think that religion itself has provided humans with any evolutionary advantage, or is it only a costly byproduct that we would be better off without?

@skado I suppose an argument could be made for religion reinforcing beneficial social structures, but that time is mostly passed. If religion has a benefit, it is more like the broken clock that happens to provide benefit once in a while, but because it does, people continue. Every win suggests the gambler is on a 'streak'.

@skado Not to answer for racocn8, but at one time there was surely a benefit in reinforcing clan ties and defending against outsiders (who might be a threat, after all). Religion reinforced, through a mythology, the idea of one's own clan or tribe as "chosen", therefore it demotivated striking out on one's own (again, it was dangerous to be without the protection of the rest of your group). Religion also helped rationalize the tribe's behavior; it's okay to kill other people who want to use this grazing area or this watering hole, because they're not of the chosen people; likewise, our men have a divine right to steal women from other, hence lesser, clans, since we, not they, have been chosen to populate the world.

But genetics tells us that all people are created alike, there is no "chosen people". We are all far much more alike than different. The genetic differences between any two peoples is miniscule compared to the difference between even our closest non-human relatives. More: now that weapons have gone beyond the muscle-powered technology of the past, and even far beyond the firearms that replaced spears and clubs, to the point that they threaten our entire species with ruin if they are used; clearly any discrimination between groups, whether religion, ethnology, or nationalism, is a danger to our evolutionary future, not an advantage.

When you say "...that time is mostly passed" do you mean we no longer need social cohesion itself, or that social cohesion is now being provided adequately by other means?

@skado I meant that the social cohesion that religion provided is no longer needed. I was referring to pre-industrial times when people were scattered in a rural landscape. Tribalism provided some benefits in the distant past. Religion may now provide refuge against urban isolation, but that causes suspicion and paranoia that are not beneficial. Social cohesion is now available via shared interests that do not degrade rationality or morality.

@Paul4747 @racocn8
My question doesn't address whether religion is now, or will be in the future an adaptive advantage, though that's certainly a worthy topic in its own right. It's about whether the 'impetus to form religions' as TMW says, was selected for in our ancestral environment, or was just a nuisance idea that had legs. And you seem to be in the former camp. I welcome all input, but I'm trying to understand why so many folks, unlike yourself, seem to be in the latter.

@skado It's my speculation that some people prefer to think of religion as something not inherent to human behavior. If it's acquired, then it can be cured with rational education, like any other acquired behavior (smoking, drug abuse, rooting for Manchester United). If it's something inherent in human nature, then it becomes much more complicated and much less susceptible of a "cure".

That would be my guess too. And my thinking is... that’s why we should face the music, if we expect to have any impact on the problem. Otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels.

@skado I take the view that, even though a inclination to religion is built in to human mental programming, it can still be overcome (otherwise, this site wouldn't exist). We're also programmed by genetics to abandon a mate after their child-breeding years have passed for a younger & more fertile mate, to aggressively exclude strangers from our territory, to war for access to resources.... and while those things do go on, there are also many examples of lifelong fidelity and peaceful cooperation between neighboring tribes and nations as examples that we can surpass our evolutionary programming.

I am of the very same view, my only point being that we are better prepared to meet a challenge if we can accurately assess the magnitude of the problem, and evolved traits are at least a magnitude greater problem than, say, generic criminal intent. A fad, in other words, can soon be replaced by another fashion, if all it is, is fashion. But a biological part of us would require the highest degree of cultural unanimity to resist. Little of it is done by individual will alone. It is this high cultural consensus that has maintained the pressure necessary to keep those primitive instincts at bay. And that cultural influence has, up until now, come through the church. The church, unfortunately, has become petrified and unable to meet modern challenges. I'm an outspoken advocate for reform, but I haven't seen a believable 'total replacement' plan yet, and "we don't need a replacement" is even less convincing.



Religion serves a purpose for some like sports does. People find meaning for life in many different things. Just like how some don't care for sports, some don't care for religion. There is more value placed on things by each individual. They have other reasons in their lives that give them purpose and meaning. Maybe I'm not religious because since I've been like 4 I focused on baseball. I moved on to music after baseball. Maybe because I can do music until I die I have no need for religion. If it was 1265 and all I had to do was milk a cow I might turn to religion to pass the time and connect with others to be part of a community. There are many different communities now for people to find meaning and to pass the time.

Religion has been on the decline for decades. The numbers of non-believers has increased or at least they feel more comfortable letting others know they don't believe. We are in a time with infinite ways to entertain ourselves, and we have science that is exploring more meaning to life with experimentation and understanding than religion ever could. Technological advances are also showing that we are capable of being in control of our own lives instead of depending on some imaginary sky daddy to guide us. As we progress as a society and gain more knowledge, it's most likely the less religion there will be. Even the religious story of Adam & Eve states that if you eat from the tree of knowledge you will damn man forever with sin. Sounds like trying to keep control over the population to me. Keep them dumb, submissive, and reliant on you for answers, etc.

Maybe religion WAS used for control and now other things take its place. Politics? Sports? Music? Celebrity? Computers? Careers? It seems religion is more abundant in poorer parts of the world and the U.S. whereas religion is less prominent in more economically rich people and/or areas. Maybe less intelligent people believe in religion more. It could be 100 different factors. Maybe religion is more abundant in societies that are more traditional like Middle Eastern countries that hold true to societal laws and norms that don't progress with the times. Maybe religion is waning because women aren't required or basically forced to be at home anymore to raise a family in most developed countries. Maybe it's linked to population. Maybe religion is or was so abundant because of fear of dying. Maybe knowledge is making us less fearful.

Thanks for this link. I had not heard of this guy, but he’s good!


Viewing religion as a byproduct of evolution I arrive at the ideas of a herd, or group. You feel there is protection within your own herd but there are many different ones. Leaders of your herd might become criminal in time but none of them started that way. They simply saw opportunity for their own betterment. Society works this same way without religion. Some have more than others and everyone wants to get ahead in life. Some want to be leaders whether they deserve to be or not.


Any centralized organization that gains absurd absolute power always requires slavery to run it's worst corruption ever in the history of human kind. No matter if it's religion or politics and mainstream medical profession or pharmaceutical which is happening today.


The concept of evolution is terrifying to the bible bunch! I'm a 30-year zoo educator and use every chance I get to talk about evolution. It's interesting to see how few people frown these days. Maybe So. Calif. science classes are doing a better job?

Looks to me like it's not only the bible bunch who have a hard time with evolution. With this poll I'm trying to understand why the atheist bunch abandon evolution when it is suggested that religion is favored genetically.

@skado "The atheist bunch" ? Your prejudices are showing. Have you any evidence that people who support evolution , which must be any person with a brain who can think, turn to folklore. Whatever that may mean

If you think that my riffing off of LucyLoohoo's use of "the bible bunch" is evidence of prejudice, but her use of it to start with isn't, then I think it's your prejudice that's been exposed. The evidence I have is this poll, in which respondents, all of whom presumably believe in evolution, overwhelmingly repeated popular folklore to explain religion (the criminals did it) instead of sticking with evolution as scientists do when discussing this topic. I have been searching pretty diligently now for five years to find a scientific basis for that folklore, and have not found anything resembling a scientific consensus to support it, but I repeatedly find scientific references to the evolutionary underpinnings of religion. I'm not asking anyone to take my word for that. Do a few Google searches and let me know if you find otherwise.

tionism@skado Surely you are not equating evolution with creationism. The first has abundant evidence to prove it including the fossil record and DNA. Creationism is just primitive man's attempt to understand how life and mankind appeared on earth. There are as many creationist theories as early civilisations.
My favourite is from Borneo where to explain the dozens of different languages in what is a fairly small area. The explanation was that a man/god with massive testicles sat on the branch of a tree and the weight of his testicles bent the branch down. The branch was suddenly released and he was scattered over the whole island giving rise to different tribal groups speaking different languages.
Maybe people do evolve to be religious but it seems unlikely as the number of churchgoers is reducing annually and it certainly does not mean that there is any truth in the religion's teachings.

I am definitely not in any way suggesting that evolution is even remotely equivalent to creationism, and I have no idea why you would think that.
Homo sapiens is a global species now, so when we speak of evolved traits we are talking about humans everywhere, not just an isolated group. And globally, religious affiliation is increasing, as a percentage of the population, rather than decreasing. But I do heartily agree that none of this means that the literal, propositional truth-claims of religions are consistent with objective reality - just that humans are evolutionarily predisposed to making them.

@skado [] Religion may be increasing overall probably because of higher population growth in third world countries but is decreasing markedly in more
enlightened countries.
I would add Scotland to the nine listed. In my lifetime church attendance has declined markedly overall although there has been an increase in US style happy clappy fundamentalist Chrisitianity.
In more democratic countries with a higher standard of living , better education, more equality and less poverty religion is declining so think I think it is more likely the lack of those things that is causing the increase rather than having anything to do with evolution

@Moravian By any stretch of the imagination saying the something is the case does not does not constitute a proof that such is thw case and may gives rise to a belief and the birth of a new myth.

@ASTRALMAX Of course not but there must be a reason why secular democracies are becoming less religious. In theocracies it is possibly dangerous to "come out" as atheist or agnostic whereas in western democracies it is no big deal. Church attendance was mandatory at one time and people could be fined for not attending church in England.
Even in my day I was forced to go to Sunday school and then church and stopped as soon as I left home at sixteen.

@Moravian I guess there may be a variety of reasons as to why secular democracies are becoming less religious; the main reason may be attributed to scientific progress and verifiable results. I am inclined to think that even a devoutly religious person bitten by a very poisonous snake and given the choice of a prayer on his or her behalf or a dose of antivenom will opt for the latter.

The old fashioned 'carrot and stick' (reward and punishment) methods of religion no longer work and they never did with those who are inclined to rational explanations.

@skado "I'm trying to understand why the atheist bunch abandon evolution when it is suggested that religion is favored genetically."

Prove this, please.

Thanks for the link. It’s an interesting view of nine countries. But I’m not sure what to make of it in light of this study by Pew Research Center of every country in the world, which acknowledges the downward trends of those nine countries but nonetheless predicts a global rise in religious participation through 2050 and beyond.


I’m also not sure that the relevant quality of the nine countries is that they are “enlightened”. That sounds like a personal bias to me. What they are is economically stable, and history has shown that when economic stability recedes, religious participation grows, in spite of any assumed secular “enlightenment”.

When the entire globe can achieve permanent economic stability for all citizens maybe religion will finally go extinct, but the original subject of this post is not about predicting the future, but about assessing the past, in terms of whether there is scientific support for an evolutionary basis for the development of religion, and why non-believers believe what they do about that.

When I go looking for answers to that particular question, what I consistently find is scientists talking about the evolutionary forces at play during a very long period of human development in which people arguably had more free time and less psychological alienation than those in modern, complex societies. I acknowledge it’s a complex subject with no easy answers.

Even scientists these days are reluctant to speak in terms of “proof” but prefer to talk about “what the known evidence suggests”.

I certainly don’t claim to have proof of anything, but the results of this poll, though a tiny sample size, indicate that an overwhelming majority of respondents (presumably all of whom are atheists or agnostics) think something other than evolution is responsible for the development of religion.

It could well be that members of AgDotCom are not a representative cross section of atheists in general, or even that AgDotCom members who respond to surveys are not representative of AgDotCom members altogether, or other possibilities I haven’t thought of, but I will say... the results of this survey are consistent with the impression I get when I encounter atheists anywhere. They think religion is nothing more than a con game and has no evolutionary roots beyond the fact that it is practiced by some members of a species that does owe its existence to evolution. They claim to prefer science over religion, but seem to not only be unaware of the current scientific attitudes toward the issue, but disinterested to the point of aggressive denial.

I don’t for a minute think this means ALL atheists think this way... but until better evidence is uncovered... it does appear to be a majority.

@skado Well. at least some of them are enlightened as they were at the forefront of the European enlightenment and Scotland's David Hume was a prominent figure in that movement.

@LucyLoohoo Well said! Up until the Age of Enlightenment the Catholic Church was the ultimate arbiter and great legitimising force in western societies. Today, that role has largely been taken over by science. Hence, everybody with a cause or agenda seeks scientific endorsement. Anything that is even tacilty approved by science is deemed to be scientific.

I'm definitely not arguing against critical thinking and the scientific method - they are, without question, a serious step forward. But that step precipitated a perception of conflict between objective reality and the lived experience which is a long way from being resolved, and is threatening to tear societies apart as we speak. The Enlightenment will not be complete, in my view, until that conflict is resolved in a way that leaves both factions with dignity intact.

@ASTRALMAX Yes, the power of the Roman Catholic church was absolute. The fact that the Declaration of Arbroath, appealing for self determination for Scotland was addressed to Pope John xxii shows this.
Scotland is once again seeking self determination but I don't think appealing to Pope Francis would do a lot of good. .


Humans needed something to offset fear of the unknown. Their collective imagination solidified into religions.

...but the tendency to do so was never encoded into our genes?

@skado what is encoded in our genes is tribalism. Just like many other animals. Wolves for example are tribal. Perhaps when they howl at the moon it is their version of prayer. Religion gives people one more way to be part of a tribe.

I definitely agree we're encoded for tribalism, and it is very likely at a much deeper level than where religion per se enters the picture. But the relevant sciences don't seem to equate the two. They speak of religion specifically as either an evolutionary adaptation or possibly a spandrel between two or more other adaptations. I do think there is probably a lot of overlap and interplay between those two impulses.

@skado - I don't believe "religion" per se is encoded in our genes or I think humans would have much greater similarities in their religions. What I would say is our big brains (a genetic trait) have certain higher functions such as imaginations and cognitive thought functions which also likely have a hard coded (or possibly genetic) component which allows humans to piece together elements observed in the world to understand and anticipate how it functions. That most religions have human or animal or mixed deities (all possessing human like characteristics) is likely a function of our inborn attraction to human faces. We find these faces in random patterns of all sorts of designs with no intended facial constructs. Personification appears to be a human trait that is universal among our species.

Referring to religion being encoded in our genes is of course a less precise but handier way to express the same thing that TheMiddleWay stated, that "there is an evolutionary impetus for religion to form", which is closer to how it would be expressed in scientific journals. They say the same thing about language. We don't have an evolutionary impetus for any specific language or religion, but we do, so they say, have an evolutionary impetus for languages and religions to form.

@skado - I would agree with this concept for a paradigm of our world to form (which is how I would describe what religion is). The concepts would become codified when they are taught as part of culture to subsequent generations and become entrenched over many generations. I would tend to say that our tendency to form religion is very similar to our tendency toward scientific discovery. It is a need to understand our world and how it works. Science is different from religion in that it requires evidence to support the concepts rather than just traditions, but the need and desire to understand and to anticipate events is essentially the same.

I might add that I think animals have a certain degree of this same ability. When I train my dog to sit in order to receive a food reward, he learns to anticipate a certain beneficial response by behaving in a certain way. I wouldn't call what animals have religion, but perhaps a sort of paradigm of how their world works (in varying degrees of what humans are able to develop).

I think what you're talking about is what philosophers would call a cosmology. And scientists would readily acknowledge that some religions, especially after the agricultural revolution, contained, and still contain cosmologies. I haven't heard any of them suggest that providing a cosmology was a defining function of religion from the perspective of evolution.

They tend to define the evolutionary functionality of religion more in terms of providing the social cohesion necessary to produce food, conduct trade, fight wars, etc. In other words, yes, our curiosity is probably adaptive in some general ways, and yes, some religions cater to that curiosity, as well as providing dietary advice, health tips, social norms, the precursors of legal standards and so on, but those are more like the specific content unique to a given culture, like whether you speak French or Russian, rather than the evolutionarily adaptive capacities like a propensity to form languages and religions to start with.

@skado - I looked up the definitions of religion and cosmology to see if I understood the terms correctly. I believe there is an awful lot of overlap between them especially in the initial formation of religion. Cosmology would likely be an important aspect of forming the core of a religion which itself evolves over time.

From things I've read, social cohesion would most definitely require evolutionary aspects to form. That contact with others of our species have certain health benefits in that touch produces certain hormones that effect our bodies and our moods in positive ways.

War we have discovered is no longer a solely human aspect since we discovered chimpanzees conduct organized raids on neighboring troops to expand their territory typically to exploit additional food sources. Meerkat troops also engage in skirmishes over territory in which members of each troop will kill members of their rival troop. I doubt we could describe these meerkat skirmishes as "war", but these interactions could be compared to behaviors and interactions of certain primitive peoples who engage in regular skirmishes.

Perhaps I'm not understanding the distinction you are trying to make or perhaps we are considering different definitions or understanding of religion. I would think that if we are looking for an evolutionary basis for religion, we would need to be able to find certain rudimentary aspects of it within other species comparable with perhaps some of the most basic forms of it in primitive humans. I accept the idea that humans have advanced forms far beyond what we should expect to find in animals, but I don't believe the roots of it don't also exist among other species. That we cannot delve into the minds and thought processes of other species means we are left with comparing behaviors and making inferences to some of our own behaviors.

Finding a universally accepted definition of religion is definitely a stumbling block, because even the experts don't agree on that, and the animal studies are still basically in their infancy, but there is a steadily growing contingent of scientists who are demonstrating possible precursors to religion in several animal species. I'll make another post about that soon.

@skado - I will look forward to that post. I've not read anything about the subject, but it makes sense to me that it would be in the evolutionary works.


Religion is obviously man-made. It was created to control people.

Science is often counter-intuitive. I’ve not been able to find any scientific consensus that says religion was created to “control people” in the sense of taking unfair advantage of them for personal gain. If the concept of control is mentioned at all it’s in terms of people controlling themselves for mutual benefit.

@skado It was originally more like for uniting people, and then for controlling people after powerful and politically-minded individuals emerged. A case of 'good intention, bad idea'.


It sure appears that way sometimes, but I find it interesting that I don't see scientists talking about that as a reason for the continuing existence (and popularity) of religions. The general idea of natural selection is that when a trait ceases to afford improved adaptive benefit for the species it will be lost, unless something very powerful besides natural selection is keeping it there. And I just can't see (and don't see in the scientific literature) any support for the idea that a malevolent intent to "control people" is powerful enough or prevalent enough to do that.


religion affords the species an option to not believe in the permanence and totality of death. of course when the reality of that can be overlooked, it will be. human nature just don't want to know some things.

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