As we enter yet another "holy" season, dominated by religious symbols and icons, it is useful once more to pose the question: Why has religious behavior occurred throughout time, in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world?
I suspect there are two possible answers to this question which may or may not be mutually exclusive with one another:
1) Religion is a basic manifestation of a mind virus or meme which has flourished in human brains
2) Religion is a behavior favored by natural selection, and so has come to dominate the human cultural landscape because it confers some survival benefit or advantage.
Let's consider (1) to start. This is based on the meme concept (with the meme acting as an ideational mind virus) first articulated by biochemist Jacque Monod in his Chance and Necessity. On page 155 Monod observes:
"The human group upon which a given idea confers greater cohesiveness, greater ambition and greate self-confidence thereby receives from it an added power to expand which will ensure the promotion of the idea itself. Its promotion value' bears no relation to the amount of objective truth the idea may contain."
He goes on to note (ibid.):
"The might of the powerful armament provided by a religious ideology for a society does not lie in its structure, but in the fact this structure is accepted, that it gains command".
One may inquire here what religious ideology has been most successful worldwide over the past twenty years. Careful inspection will disclose that it's none other than Christian Evangelism or Fundamentalism. It has not only gained ground over Roman Catholicism in places like Central and South America, but in Africa as well. Its ideational benefits are huge, given its simplicity, and its recipe for (eternal) reward: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior" is intoxicating.
Indeed the only religious ideology that rivals it in converts is Islam, with its promise of eternal rest and succor provided one wages war against the "infidels" (which, coincidentally, include the Christian Fundamentalists)
Not surprisingly then, the most powerful and insidious memes (ideas-beliefs) are those dedicated to the spread of religous beliefs. If we seek to ask why one set is more successful than a rival set, then we need to look at what Monod, for example, calls their "infectious power". This power can be set forth in terms of three main attributes:
1) Performance value: What change does the meme or meme complex bring about in behaviors for the person who adopts it? (For Christian Fundamentlists, the most major change is that they are intent on spreading their "message" to others, pagans, unbelievers, in the conviction that must "save their souls". They believe that Christ enjoined them to do this and not to do so is to ignore his edict to "go forth")
2) Propagation value: How far and wide is the meme spread, and what means are employed to achieve this? (E.g. Islam in the past has invoked beheadings locally, and more generally "holy wars" or Jihads to force belief onto uncooperative populations. Christian Fundamentalists make more use of the threat of "Hell" to any indigenous groups that are reluctant to accept their "personal Savior")
3) Infectious value: How easy is it to infect other brains? What attribute of the meme facilitates the infection?
In the last case, say for the faith meme in general, part of its structure inheres in automatically warding off too close rational scrutiny. Thus, reason and rationality are either: a) demonized (as byproducts of "Satan") or, b) marginalized as inferior to faith.
Example: from a CNN program featuring Skeptic Paul Kurtz, the topic "Does Satan Exist?"
Phone caller (to Kurtz): "Of course you will say that Satan doesn't exist! But that's exactly what Satan wants! He doesn't want anyone to believe in him!"
And we see here, the Satan belief component of the meme is perfectly designed to limit and minimize any damage from Kurtz's skepticism. After all, if one doesn't believe in Satan, he has to be under the spell of Satan...in causing disbelief!
No one can say that these religious mind viruses don't possess a certain innate beauty!
While the theory of mass infection of human brains is very compelling, and indeed has recently been revisited in the book, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, by Aaron Lynch, Basic Books, 1996, it leaves open why a small subset of humans (atheists, other nonbelievers) aren't affected...or should I say, infected?
I suspect the likely reason is that their (mostly) scientific training provides an inoculation against the effort to infect their brains...by those trying to meet their convert quota. Because we have studied hard science for so many years we can easily recognize humbug when we see it. So, it washes off our ideational backs like a flu bug might for someone whose had the H1N1 vaccine.
Now, what about the second notion? This has recently been made popular in a number of venues, not least have been the claims for a "God gene" or - less dogmatically -that religous belief confers health and other benefits. Against which I'd not necessarily complain. I just have problems accepting that religion necessarily "evolved" because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. (I do think that ethics likely evolved and developed along lines favored by natural selection - as I made known in my blog response to my brother Mike some time ago).
More plausible is that religious belief evolved along with blind optimist tendencies - as well as the ability to "see things that aren't there" (see the book, Faces in the Clouds) in one single brain complex, probably centered in the temporal lobes. We know, for example - as Monod pointed out in his book (p. 50, by reference to functional coherence in associated molecular cybernetic systems) that it is often very important that humans remain "dumb and happy" in the evolutionary scheme of the brain. The survival basis here is to reduce existential anxiety and probably a host of physical indicators (e.g. blood pressure) as well. But this is not to say anything real is doing it. Rather it is the believer's own beliefs manifesting as a kind of intangible opiate or narcotic. Not surprisingly, reckless uninformed optimism (as when people leap into the stock market because others are, believing they will succeed) and religious faith clearly emerge as symptoms of the same general brain defect that abhors reality.
Thus, religion is widespread because this brain wiring defect is also widespread. A small percentage of humans (atheists ) lack it, but then they often lack the benefits as well. I wouldn't be surprised- given this, if atheists are found to have more depression, higher blood pressure, more general bad health indicators (poor lipid profiles, high c-reactive protein, etc). They might naturally show these because they suffer no delusions, and are fully cognizant of being orphans in a purposeless cosmos. To compensate for this painful existential awareness they might self-medicate in ways that the medical cognoscenti might not approve.
At some later time I will try to revisit this, bringing some actual statistics to the fore.