The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.
Very strange because it seems to me that with about five seconds thought one can easily arrive at an evolutionary advantage associated with a belief in eternal life, and accordingly an evolutionary explanation of it.
Tribes of ancient humans often battled each other to death – literally to death, the losers being completely wiped out – and in these battles, a willingness to die might be the difference between victory and defeat, between your gene pool spreading, and your gene pool being wiped out.
Tons of stuff has been written about the prisoner’s dilemma associated with infantry battles. If you all stand together and fight, your side has its best chance of winning. Anyone breaking and running exposes all others to annihilation. Etcetera. Military cultures ancient and modern were and are suffused with ideas of honour and courage and self-sacrifice, all of which resulted and result in everyone in your army standing firm and holding the line.
In such a world, a belief in some kind of Valhalla of dead heroes is pretty much a certainty. Even now, effective military units do everything they can to ensure that their heroic dead-in-battle are treated with tremendous solemnity and never forgotten, giving them eternal life of a limited kind, and pour encourager les autres. Such notions have even greater force if eternal life is literally what everyone in the front line of battle believes in. I am amazed, absolutely amazed, that any academic could be unaware of such notions, or if aware, then unpersuaded.
It’s as if this guy Scott Atran has never seen a war memorial, and never even read The Selfish Gene, which is all about how our selfish genes cause us, in certain circumstances, to become raging altruists, sacrificing ourselves for the greater good of society.
You do not have to have to have any particular view of the truth of religion in order to see the force of this explanation. As an atheist, I am obviously on the look out for evolutionary explanations of the phenomenon of religious belief, given that I don’t think such beliefs are correct – so why do people persist in believing them or in their absence, invent them? But religious people often use such genetically-enhanced-altruism notions to argue for religion, on consequentialist grounds. In a similar spirit they also argue, perhaps rightly, that religious people are more inclined to have children, and hence to outbreed us atheists, childbirth being, for a woman, not unlike taking part in a battle, especially in earlier centuries. Religion makes your society stronger, because it make you more willing to sacrifice yourself for the collective!
Notice that if you didn’t care at all about the collective in the first place, the argument in the previous sentence would have no force for you.
It’s somewhat off topic, but this is one of the many reasons why I am, although an admirer of her in many ways, not a devotee of Ayn Rand. Her stated plan of saving the world by abolishing altruism flies in the face of the known facts of human nature. The trick is to do altruism well, not to try to abolish it. Which is easier said than done, as our current economic troubles illustrate well, and which is actually, I would argue, what most of Ayn Rand’s stories and heroic characters were really all about, despite what she and they insisted on telling us.