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Evolution of Belief

danYell's picture

The Evolution of Belief

“Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.”
- Sam Harris

There is debate about whether or not religion evolved as an adaptation or as a spandrel. If religion is an adaptation, there was some reason for it to aid us in our journey to survive and procreate. If it is a spandrel it serves no purpose and is just a byproduct of the other mechanisms of our physiology. Earlier this month, an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Darwin’s God” highlighted the debate over this issue. Scott Atran, a renowned anthropologist was the focus of this article. His view is that belief in a God and creator is the easy way it; is the cognitive path of least resistance and takes less effort than disbelief. A few weeks later there was an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled “God’s Dupes” which took the argument a step further. Not only is belief simple-minded, but it is unnecessary self-deception; humans should recognize that we no longer have a need for this troublesome behavior. Religion is the cause of war which leads to poverty and famine. The most striking element for me in these ideas is the misplaced arrogance with which they are wrought. I find the idea that religion, whether it comes from adaptation or as spandrel, cannot be unnecessary. This is a premature idea for the following reasons: we do not know why we came to have religion, if we say that it is unnecessary we are devaluing its worth in our lives presently, and we do not know where it will lead us.

After reading an ethnography about the Beng people of Côte D’Ivoire I came to understand just how much religion shapes every aspect of our daily lives and child-rearing practices. Alma Gottlieb, author of The Afterlife is Where We Come From, focuses on the Beng infant and the culture of infancy in West Africa. Looking at someone else’s culture through such a close lens makes me think about my own culture more closely. A thread throughout Gottlieb’s ethnography is the comparison between Beng mothering and Euro-American mothering. Differences are noted, but neither is explicitly determined to be better and Gottlieb persistently reminds us that the Western norms of physical and psychological development are actually the norm for a minority of children worldwide. For me, the discovery that the seemingly biological timetable of mobility and speech is in fact social becomes a sort of universal acid that makes me question all aspects of my life. Can I find any behavior that I have not been socialized into?

This is particularly important because a large majority of the Beng childrearing practices are related to their belief in the afterlife. The Beng believe that the child comes from a place called wrugbe where the ancestors reside. This is also where one returns to on death. During infancy and early-childhood Beng mothers guard their children very closely because these children are not yet a part of physical reality and they are easily lured back to wrugbe by ancestors, jealous forest spirits or the like. I make the speculation that because of the high infant mortality rate the ideology of the afterlife and the appeal of the afterlife arose. Without getting into a hugely detailed description of Beng infant care practices, I want to be clear that almost every moment of a child’s socialization into life, and all the skills that she is taught for survival and communication in early-childhood are a response to a religious belief in the lure of the afterlife.

Culture is everything. Culture shapes what we do and who we are. From the moment our feet hit the floor in the morning ‘til the moment we pull the sheet up to our chins at night, and even in our dreams, culture is in control; it is what distinguishes us from the other species on earth. Religion shapes a great deal of our culture. What we choose to eat for breakfast, the way I treat the guy next to me on the train in the morning, how you teach your child about where her recently deceased pet dog really is: these are all functions of the culture and the religion one is socialized into.

The question becomes not only why do people believe in these stories, but what is the evolutionary purpose of this belief, if there is one. The plot thickens when the idea that religion is a spandrel become the idea that religion is unnecessary, even passé. Harris, in his opinion piece, urges us to just forget about it, we don’t need it anymore, if we ever did. I think it is premature to assert that religion as caused by evolution is an unnecessary adaptation for our survival. Atran assumes his viewpoint is elevated because it is more difficult to be a non-believer than a believer. I feel that the atheist believer is being arrogant in this assumption. This leads to much speculation, but there may be a huge value to being a believer that we have not yet discovered.

Buddhist practitioners, through the sum of their beliefs and the exercise of meditation, have been able to do pretty amazing things with their minds. Research into transcendental meditation, using the scientific method, shows that the practice creates brain waves different than those of a waking, dreaming, or deep sleep state. The effects of this brain state on health are still being studied but it is believed that it changes endocrine levels, blood chemistry, and has an effect on cell metabolism. There are implications for self-healing of physical problems and improved communications in social settings.

Why does culture have us do things that may prevent us from being biologically fit and reproducing? It is argued that our beliefs undermine effective inter-cultural communication and support. Some religions promote celibacy or sexual practices counter to biological fitness. Mayr, in his book What Evolution Is argues that humans will not evolve again, as the circumstances for speciation will not occur. I find that through evolutions unknowable character, we can’t know when we are in the process of evolving. I can only look back and say, yes, something happened around this time in history, though I don’t know exactly what it was. Perhaps the power of religion and the power of belief is not in the thought, but in using the thought as a springboard. If through our belief we are able to harness the power to transcend, I’m all for it.

I do not agree with Harris’ statement “everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly.” I certainly don’t think that we are ready to give up belief when evolutionarily speaking we have just begun. It shapes the most critical aspects of our lives, and for me, being without these shaping beliefs would be unnatural. Belief may be the path of least resistance if we are hard-wired to do it, but it doesn’t follow for me that non-belief is a superior way of thinking. If we see belief as spandrel, then I will allow that it has caused some damage to individuals, but I don’t see damage done to the species as a whole just yet. It is also then a spandrel that we have based culture, and our entire way of doing things on. Could evolution produce a very wrong spandrel? If evolution is a process of getting it less wrong, and belief is a product of adaptation, this belief is a way of getting it less wrong. This may be the easy way out, but I don’t think that we will be able to answer this question until if and when we evolve.

Gottlieb, Alma. The afterlife is where we come from: the culture of infancy in West Africa. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Harris, Sam. “God Dupes”. LATimes op-ed. March 15, 2007. Retrieved from,0,671840.story?coll=la-home-commentaryon 3/19/07

Marantz Henig, Robin. “Darwin’s God”. NY Times Magazine. March 4, 2007. Retrieved from on 3/19/07

Mayr, Ernst. What evolution is. New York : Basic Books, 2001.

Taylor, Eugene. The physical and psychological effects of meditation. Retrieved from on 3/19/07.

Unger, Katie. Web extra: Mindfulness for the masses. July 26, 2005. Retrieved from on 3/19/07.


Anne Dalke's picture

a very wrong spandrel?


A defense of the “usefulness” of religion (especially one as sophisticated as this one, claiming that that it’s only “scientific” to acknowledge that all the evidence isn’t in yet!) is certainly needed @ this point in our discussion, and I’m glad to see you offering it.

A few technical suggestions for strengthening your claims:

  • Begin by locating the debate about the evolution of religion: who’s arguing, where? When?
  • Define your terms: what’s a spandrel? (yes, I know, but many readers of your blog, not familiar w/ Gould’s work, may not)
  • I’m interested in your references to Buddhist belief and practice, and want citations to the research, so I can learn more.
  • I think we can retrospectively identify events, both biological and cultural…

Then a few bigger questions, which I’d very much like to discuss with you further:

  • You say that “culture is everything,” that “culture is in control,” that culture “has us do things.” I want to counter by insisting both on genetic influence and individual free will. We each come with a genetic package, one that does limit our range of exploration (I could NEVER be All-American, no matter how much I practiced). Biology matters, too: it’s not determinative, but it is @ least directive. Culture is influential, but also not determinative. There is genetic imput. And individual variation.
  • You talk about “evolutionary purpose.” I think Paul and Tamarinda corrected me on this pretty decisively in class yesterday: evolution is not motivated. Mutations happen randomly.
  • I’d like to see you give a little more space to Atran’s arguments about our “natural tendency” to believe; they are based on extensive studies about theory of mind, about attribution of agency, about pattern making. He emphasizes that it is counter to human ‘nature’ not to believe, a concept that actually strengthens your argument
  • You say that you’re “all for transcendence.” Tell me more; what’s that mean to you?
  • You end by asking if evolution could produce a “very wrong spandrel.” If a spandrel is a by-product, in what context or terms could it be wrong?

Much to talk about—