Biology and religion

by Neil Rickert

Is there a biological basis for religion?

There has been some speculation about this, following a recent report:

In this post I will express my opinion.  I want to be clear that what I write here is opinion.

First, some comments on the Science Daily report.  It says:

“Religious belief is a unique human attribute observed across different cultures in the world, even in those cultures which evolved independently, such as Mayans in Central America and aboriginals in Australia,” said Deshpande, who is also a researcher at Auburn’s Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center.

Call me a skeptic.  It may be unique to humans.  Or maybe not.  How can we be sure that there is nothing similar in social bees, social ants or prairie dogs?  It seems to me that we would have to get inside their culture and their subjective lives to be able to determine whether there is something similar.

Is religiosity biological?

The problem here, is that it is very hard to know what the question is asking.  It seems very likely that a capacity for cultural myths would gain biological support.  Is that the same thing?  Perhaps it is.  When we discover a culture that has a mythology, we will probably describe that as a primitive religion.  But perhaps it is a capacity for myth, rather than a capacity for religion, that has evolved.  And, in that case, religion has been able to make use of that capacity for myth.

Myth and biology

Why we we evolve a capacity for myth?

To me, it seems entirely plausible that we would develop such a capacity.  A cultural myth is a kind of memory for the culture.  The myth, itself, may be fiction.  But the myth is usually wrapped around cultural practice, and so serves as a kind of memory for those practices.  For example, it is often suggested that the Jewish dietary laws may have served as a reminder to avoid some types of food that were more likely to carry disease.  It has also been suggested that native groups in some places were less affected by the devastating tsunami of 2004.  Those groups recognized some signs, and moved inland away from the sea.  This kind of recognition can come from the stories told in the cultural myths of those groups.

The idea of myths as cultural memory, perhaps seems strange to us.  But that’s because we have the printing press, libraries, etc.  However, in terms of the history of mankind, those are relatively recent inventions.  Before there were such technological innovations, the traditions and myths of a culture would have been the main reservoir of cultural memory.

Given the apparent benefits of such a cultural memory, it seems likely that a capacity for such memory would have been selected in the processes of evolution.  And this is why I see it as entirely plausible, that there is an evolved capacity for cultural myths.

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2 Comments to “Biology and religion”

  1. Any time I hear someone clamoring to make humans unique, special, amazing or some other such grand brag when compared to other living things, I know there is an easy error waiting to be exposed.

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