Thursday, June 01, 2006

On the Evolution of Religion

At the end of my last post I briefly discussed why we should expect religions that have lasted and even flourished for thousands of years to improve the viability of the communities that embrace those religions. The reasons are analogous to the role of selection in biological/ecological systems. Today, I happened to come across this in a blog comment:

The doctrine of the fall of man was one of the greatest religious ideas to ever be put forth. It "explained" why man was no longer aware of God, able to communicate openly with God, and that everything absurd about God was really just man's "fallen mind". Looking at religion from an natural standpoint, it is retrospectively easy to see why the major religions survived as they did -- according to Dennett in his new book, a new religion is born every single day, as a seed of speculation. The effect of selection (like evolutionary biology) is that only the best ideas, the most viables seeds, have taken root. Those ideas which did the best job of explaining the history and present situation of the cultures they developed in lasted longest. Furthermore, those religious frameworks which developed around the most stable of economies, or had the most "societally-friendly" beliefs and practices, tend to spread and further themselves the fastest. I would quote a friend of mine here, concerning a particular anthropological phenomenon:

My favourite example of relative morals is the pre-Christian religion of Fiji. Under this religion, people had a moral obligation to cook and eat their enemies. This was not simple savagery - it was an aspect of their religion. By eating an enemy, you denied them entry to the afterlife. Hence, it was a moral duty - a sacrament.

The Old Religion was finally exterminated with the conversion of the King Cakobau in the mid-19th century, and I think that today most of us (including me) would feel that this was a good thing. The Old Religion was not a stable strategy for a civilisation, as evidenced by the fact that before the Christian missionaries arrived, Fiji was a melange of warring petty kingdoms with no structure or history that we would recognise. Hence, although they survived, they did not thrive. Today, although there is a huge number of different Christian, Moslem and Hindu sects represented in the population, they have a "civilised", progressive government and economy, thanks to the Judeo-Christian moral complex.

It is, as John pointed out, a question of "cart or horse first?" Do we assume the truth of the Bible, and work outwards from there, saying, "the reason Christianity has thrived is because it's true and God is good," or, "the reason is because it works, and other religions work too, but some not as well, at explaining various aspects of the world?" John proposed what he called the "outsider test" for Christians to follow: treat your own religion, just for a moment, as you treat others -- as untrue. Approach your deepest-held convictions with skepticism, ask what Ockham's razor does to the "explanations" you erstwhile simply took for granted. And see if you cannot easily reject Christianity for the same reasons you reject Islam and Hinduism and the other thousands of religions: because there is no good reason for you to believe it.

Daniel Morgan

Comment at Debunking Christianity

How apropos.

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