The Evolution of Religion

The Evolution of Religion: Is it Adaptive to Believe  that God’s on Your Side?

07 June 2016

Dr Michael Price, Brunel University

Is Religiosity an Adaptation?  
What does this question mean?
What’s ‘religiosity’?
• More psychological than ‘religion’  
• William James (1902) provides a useful low-resolution definition

What’s ‘religiosity’?

“(Religiosity) consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
Simple and general enough to describe religiosity cross-culturally, in terms of human nature  

What’s an ‘adaptation’?

A standard Darwinian adaptation is a biological device that solved a problem related to individual survival or reproduction in the evolutionary past  
So “is religiosity an adaptation?” is asking:  
How could belief in an unseen order help individual survival and reproduction?   
A few more points about adaptations:  
• Can also be cultural (group level)  
• Chief design principle of organismal tissue, but not all traits are adaptations; can also be: 1. By-products of adaptations 2. Random noise     

What do evolutionary scientists believe about religion?

• Religion may be a cultural adaptation that enables groups to more effectively cooperate (Wilson, 2002; Johnson, 2015)   
• May well be true, but let’s keep focus on individual psychological level, not group cultural level   
• Building from ground up to understand how individuals may benefit from religiosity   
• Consensus among evolution-minded psychologists: ‘Belief in unseen order’ is by-product of other mental adaptations • As hyper-social organisms we constantly ‘mind-read’, attribute agency and intention • We easily go overboard, over-attribute agency to universe in general  
 • Religiosity may in fact be a by-product • But as starting point to dispute that view, consider data on religiosity and survival • If by-product, no expected survival value  • However…   

Religion and survival

• Well-established link between religion and survival, especially among women – McCullough et al. 2000; Powell et al. 2003; Li et al. 2016 • After controlling for other risk factors, 2533% reduction in all-cause mortality among religious • But what specifically about being religious leads to improved survival?   
• Two broad categories of explanation for religion–health correlation 1. Social benefits: • Organised religion offers social support, reduced stress (good for health) 2. Private benefits:  • Personal relationship with ‘unseen order’ may promote coping, reduced stress (good for health)  

Social benefits of religion

• Well-established that social support is good for health (review in Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010) • Evidence that religious attendance—but not other aspects of religious involvement—is related to health (Powell et al., 2003)    
• Does religion promote survival simply because it provides community? • If so, secular quasi-religious communities may be as beneficial as religious ones • To test this idea, we collected data on attendance and wellbeing from the Sunday Assembly (a “secular congregation that celebrates life”) – Price, M. E. & Launay, J. (in preparation)    

Sunday Assembly involves large Sunday ‘services’ (2x month) and more frequent small-group meetings 18

Sunday Assembly is London-based but global

• We tracked 92 Sunday Assembly (SA) attendees over 6 months • Aged 23-73, 58% female, 91% white • 55% from USA, 38% UK, 7% Australia/Canada • ‘Panel analysis’ of data by Jacques Launay   

• Outcome variables: – W-E Wellbeing (Warwick-Edinburgh) – ONS Wellbeing  – Loneliness (De Jong Gierveld) – Composite score • Predictors: – SA Sunday services attended in previous month – SA small group activities attended in previous month – Non-SA social activities attended in previous month

• Results: Participating in more SA small group activities: – Did not affect loneliness – Marginally improved W-E wellbeing – Strongly improved ONS wellbeing  – Strongly improved composite wellbeing/loneliness   

• So, good evidence that survival value of religion has much to do with its social benefits • But what about private benefits?    

Private benefits of religion

• ‘Positive religious coping’ associated with improved response to stress, trauma, ostracism – Review in Bryant-Davis & Wong (2013) • Less depression & anxiety, more optimism    
• Religious coping often involves increased private religiosity (e.g. prayer, intensified faith)

• But hard to disentangle from social support, since private and social religiosity are usually confounded   
• Seems plausible that increased belief in transcendent empowerment = increased optimism = improved health

• But benefits of belief might actually be result of social support; more data needed • Future studies should tease apart private and social benefits of religion     
• Related possibility: belief in transcendent empowerment helps with goal attainment • So adaptive benefits are not because  optimism = health, but because goal attainment = status & resources      
• Evidence anecdotal, but belief in transcendent empowerment seems important for motivation, perseverance, and optimism in face of challenges and risk – It’s my destiny, I’m on a mission from God, I’ve been chosen for a special purpose, etc. – My success is meant to happen, it’s part of God’s plan, divine providence, God wills it, etc. • Easy to ridicule…      
• But also easy to cite instances of historical importance, especially in contexts of military leadership

• Belief in transcendent empowerment seems central to these leaders’ motivation      

A non-military, non-‘religious’ example

• Belief in transcendent empowerment also a consistent theme of our most beloved myths

• Suggest that people are attracted to logic of transcendent empowerment     

The ‘unseen order’ may take the form of an abstract force…    
…or assume conventional religious forms.   

It also may express itself through, and take control of, nature (Campbell, 1949)   

Summing up

• So, belief in transcendent empowerment seems like common strategy for dealing with stress, trauma, challenges • Important in history, myth, and everyday life, in both religious and non-religious contexts       

• Seems plausible that belief in transcendent empowerment could promote optimism and goal attainment • However, unclear that it has health or other ‘fitness’ benefits (independent of benefits of religious community)      

Applications and Questions

How is this knowledge useful?

Over past decades, declining participation in organised religion, rises in loneliness, depression, anxiety.  
Secular, quasi-religious communities (e.g. Sunday Assembly, Humanism) could be good for public health.  
Such organisations have had some success, but how much more could they have?       

Are these organisations limited by secularism? Is ‘religious’ philosophy necessary for community?  
Could shared belief in an unseen order—that is, faith—function as a special kind of social glue?  
This belief provides ultimate meaning, so important to people; but order is invisible, so verification from others essential to reinforce faith.        

Let’s say it turns out that belief in unseen order is necessary basis for religious-type community.  
Is that bad news foReferences  r non-religious ‘naturalists’, since it gives them no reason to seek religious community?         

Not necessarily… perhaps unseen order can be a natural one.   
In fact, groups like the Sunday Assembly and Humanists already to some extent  invoke an unseen natural order—especially, a moral one.        

A natural unseen order can also be directional and go hand-in-glove with a moral order.  



Decline of violence (cultural evolution) = valuation of reasoned, peaceful dispute resolution (Pinker, 2011).  
Rise of complex cooperation (biological evolution) = valuation of exchange over conflict (Wright, 2009).  

Cosmological evolutionary theory may ultimately reveal ‘function’ of universe (Smolin, 1997).  
Scientific revelation is process of exposing a previously unseen order; perhaps belief in the emerging order (‘faith’) could provide adequate basis for community?

Bryant-Davis, T. & Wong, E. C. (2013). Faith to move mountains: Religious coping, spirituality, and interpersonal trauma recovery. American Psychologist, 68, 675-684.  
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon.  
Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40, 218-227.  
James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Longman.  
Johnson, D. (2015). God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. Oxford University Press.  
Li, S., Stampfer, M. J., Williams, D. R., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2016). Association of religious service attendance with mortality among women. JAMA Internal Medicine.   

McCullough, M. E., Hoyt, W. T., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & Thoresen, C. (2000). Religious involvement and mortality: a meta-analytic review. Health Psychology, 19, 211-222.  
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking.  
Powell, L. H., Shahabi, L., & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. American Psychologist, 58, 36-52.  
Price, M. E. & Launay, J. (In preparation). Links between wellbeing and participation in a secular congregation.  
Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press.  
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press.  
Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God. Little, Brown & Company.