Could Our Beliefs Be an Evolutionary Advantage?

The current world population amounts to approximately 7,8 billion people. You, me, all of us. According to the latest estimations, roughly 85% of us feel affiliated with one of the currently practised religions. The remaining 15% do not necessarily all identify as atheists, some see themselves as agnostic or simply non-religious, having no strong views about religious beliefs. For comparison, the current estimated number of active internet users globally constitutes about 60% of the world population. I can imagine Nietzsche’s surprise at these numbers if he saw them today, some 140 years after his famous statement that God is dead and that we have killed Him. The fact is that the vast majority of all the people alive on Earth today hold some religious beliefs. Why? What makes religious belief so ubiquitous? Not in the sense of any specific religious tradition but rather from the perspective of the worldwide reach and omnipresence of our inclination to believe. An interesting suggestion for an answer comes from a new branch of science – the cognitive science of religion (CSR). In this article, I will explore what appears to me as one of the most interesting insights of CSR: the claim that our religious faiths are supported and made possible by the bedrock of our tendency to believe in agency in our environment that, in turn, can be regarded as an evolutionary advantage. Read on to find out more.    

Sun god Helios, Vienna, Austria1

From the perspective of our survival as a species, this ‘evolutionary advantage’ claim seems plausible. Here is why. Imagine yourself in the prehistorical times of our distant ancestors. You are roaming the savannah with your closely-knit group when you notice some stirring in the bush. What is your immediate thought? Those of our ancestors who believed there was someone/something in the bush when it rustled – in other words, the belief that someone/something was causing (agency) this observed phenomenon – were more likely to avoid danger or have a successful hunt than those who didn’t have such intuitive beliefs. Purely from the perspective of survival, then, careful reflection is a costly adaptation method. A quicker, more automatic and intuitive method can offer more advantage. Hence, our tendency to believe in agency in our environment. And if so, soon enough we are likely to start wondering who is behind all this, who is causing it all to occur, who is the agent, perhaps even – the ultimate cause of everything? 

Coming back to the CSR claim and the adaptive benefit view, it seems that the most evolutionary advantage can be gained from the combination of both quick, intuitive and slow, reflective belief-forming methods. This is where I see culture entering the scene. Once the cognitive adaptation of the belief in agency in our environment is in place, and once it is combined with our brain’s flexible learning capacity (neuroplasticity), increasingly more comprehensive beliefs and eventually belief systems become possible. They are further and further removed from our more intuitive beliefs and, thus, require well-organised support to keep them going. That support structure is culture, in its broadest meaning. Culture helps create, explain, and maintain such comprehensive systems. I think it is reasonable to suggest that this is an essential contributor to enabling the formation of larger, more complex communities, states, multi-national civilisations and international organisations. It is perhaps this evolutionary adaptation, combined with our other cognitive traits, that facilitates the development of sophisticated religious narratives.

At this point, you might wonder whether placing the foundations of the possibility of religious beliefs in an evolutionary adaptation does not pose a serious threat to a theist’s belief in the existence of God or the validity of their respective faith more broadly? I don’t think it does. If CSR is right, it simply will have established what evolutionary beneficial cognitive capacities inform our religious beliefs and how they do so. Knowing this tells us nothing about the existence of God or the truth of any particular religious creed. Science cannot provide answers to such questions, in my view, to a large extent because no scientific project can prove or disprove something that is beyond its scope of research. Moreover, if we find out that our minds are predisposed to believe in agency and patterns, and we create vibrant cultures that are made possible partly due to this predisposition, then using this same predisposition to either prove or disprove the veracity of our beliefs embedded in respective culture would mean going in circles. Potentially new and interesting insights about ourselves might be gained from these circles but, as it seems to me, there is no real threat to religious beliefs.   

If there is no threat to faith as such, could there perhaps be the risk of interpreting the ‘evolutionary advantage’ claim of CSR as favouring some religious traditions over others on the grounds of them having more adaptive benefit? Also here I do not see such risk. In my view, the CSR claim focuses on a cognitive mechanism that is characteristic of us as a species. In this sense, I agree that it must have evolved and offers an adaptive benefit from an evolutionary perspective. As a cognitive adaptive mechanism, it is basic enough to be developed and refined in a great variety of ways – this is where individual cultures and traditions come in. Therefore, I do not think that our predisposition to believe in agency/ meaningful patterns in our environment somehow determines or steers us towards one specific type of theology/religious belief. Reason for this being that, in addition to our intuitive/automatic predispositions, we also have the capacity for significant cognitive flexibility. The existence of the great variety of cultures, worldviews, religious and non-religious traditions that we have now and have had throughout history testifies to that. From this perspective, it seems to me that combining the more intuitive cognitive predisposition (e.g. belief in agency) with the more flexible cognitive traits (such as made possible by neuroplasticity) offers a significant adaptive benefit in its totality, as a package.

CSR offers further interesting insights into the cognitive origins of our beliefs by suggesting how our intuitive, automatic beliefs and our more reflective beliefs mutually influence each other and shape our worldviews. Stay tuned to find out more about this in my upcoming articles.

keep exploring!

1Image credit: By © Hubertl / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46075567

2 thoughts on “Could Our Beliefs Be an Evolutionary Advantage?

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Word: Your Thoughts Matter – humanfactor

  2. Pingback: Our Beliefs Develop in Circles – humanfactor

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