The religious we have always with us

In my recent talk on secularism, I declared that there will always be religion, and a secularist ought to get used to that fact. Secularists have assumed that a secular society will cause religion to wither away and die, but this seems to me a foolish thing to believe. Every society known has had a religion or six, and although, as PZ recently noted, some religion is on the decline and more people are declaring themselves to be non-religious (which is not the same has having no religious beliefs, by the way), this doesn't license the easy induction that religion is on the way out. These things run in cycles and like the stock market there are booms and busts for every cultural stock.

A very measured essay by Pascal Boyer in Nature this week argues that religion, being a byproduct of our common cognitive resources as humans, is unlikely to disappear, because it is a standard way of freeloading on those cognitive capacities, just like music and other non-survival-oriented capacities:

Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents, and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures. Hijacking also occurs because religions facilitate the expression of certain behaviours. This is the case for commitment to a group, which is made all the more credible when it is phrased as the acceptance of bizarre or non-obvious beliefs.

While Boyer doesn't think that religion in itself is adaptive (while I do think that, for agrarian societies), the commitment point is crucial to understanding religion, and indeed all social movements that demand loyalty on the part of adherents, like political party affiliation. Humans are pre-set to make alliances and allegiances, because it's a way of ensuring one has the necessary resources to make good. So as long as this is a way of achieving these aims, which are ultimately related to our need to propagate by reproduction, religion will persist, as will other forms of community commitment signalling.

Boyer notes:

Knowing, even accepting these conclusions is unlikely to undermine religious commitment. Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

And this, too, is true. Just as it takes real effort to learn science that runs counter to our folk physics, folk psychology, and folk biology (not to mention our natural dispositions to mis-estimate risk), it takes real effort to learn not to believe what evolution basically hands us on a plate. It is possible, but it is costly, and as a strategy for organising society, liable to invasion and subversion by religious interests. In short, a skeptical society is not an evolutionarily stable strategy.

For that reason I promote secularism, not as a way of eliminating religion, but as a way of ensuring that no one religion can control or eliminate the others, and as a side effect, of ensuring that there is room for nonbelievers to exist as well. Secularism prevents Thirty Year's Wars, and permits Enlightenments. More than that we cannot expect, though we may work towards a less religious society. Ultimately, a lack of religion must evolve naturally (at the historical, cultural, level - I'm not talking about biological evolution here) as it has in several countries, and it cannot be imposed by propaganda or legal means. It must be an organic change, so to speak.

And no matter how secularised the society, there will always be religious. As Jesus might have said...

Late note: See also Mind Hacks on Boyer's piece.

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I think a whole discussion can be created over the use of the word "evolve" to refer to societies.

It's a theme that should be propogated further ([plug]I try with my books [/plug]) - There can't ever be just one religion, but there could be none.

Besides, even if all "religions" are gone we would still have their mythology, same as right now we have Norse "Myths" alongside Judeo-Christian "Religions". Eventually we'll have a secular society with a rich and varied history of mythology. Hopefully.

Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion.

As do science and philosophy, otherwise you might be a hunter-gatherer, Conan, or perhaps working (say it ain't so) in some ghastly document shop or cubicle farm.

it is a standard way of freeloading on those cognitive capacities, just like music and other non-survival-oriented capacities

To a musician, music is a survival-related activity. Believe me, I can testify to that, as can many others (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Bonham, Entwhistle, etc). Man does not live by bread alone, nor do philosophers and scientists, otherwise we would be something much, much simpler. Like George Bush.

Hmm.

I don't see it as impossible to effectively - note I said effectively - eradicate religion. One must take into account the changing society - as a society becomes less agrarian and more technological, it is easier for a secular society to take hold.

I think the key point is human willingness to overcome their own cognitive knee-jerk reflexes - there are some of us who prefer the rational, and there are some people who still cling to modes of existence that consist of little actual thought process.

We evolutionarily haven't caught up just yet to where we need to be, and I'm curious to see how humans will behave in a few centuries.

Saying that religion will always be with us is the exact opposite of saying that religion will be eradicated--its the flip side of the same coin. What both approaches lack is the crystal ball needed to pull off such certain views.

Pascal provides a handle on the fancy expressions that our consciousness and mental activities give forth. It's cool having a brain that allows emergent properties.

As an practitioner of one of the fancy expressions of cognition listed by Boyer (cuisine), I don't cook up garbage, turds floating in urine, etc. While religions do for the most part and shamelessly also, trying to sweeten their cook pots of garbage with a few tasty/nutritious shreds here and there floating among the glop.

As folks become more particular in terms of what satisfies their palates, they will also do that in terms of what satisfies their religious/philosophical proclivities. But that progression may not include the supernatural. Hence religion could be eradicated and yet at the same time essentially remain, fulfilling many of the duties done earlier by the supernatural version.

In addition, the way that we are interconnected via the Web and the pronounced effects of such interconnectivity, the embracing of concerted efforts to be skeptical could surprise, even you, John.

I really don't think religion will always be with us, but I won't speak definitively. I don't think it's much of an argument to say religion has always been with us. Just a few centuries ago we could say the same thing about alchemy. Mind you, I just saw an article on alchemy on the cover of Atlantis Rising or some New Age magazine. But, I think we would all agree that we are generally free of alchemy at this point, even though we can never definitely prove that it is impossible to turn lead to gold.

I think the same will hold true for religion. We can never disprove the fundamental tenets of religion, but I think they will look more and more ridiculous with time. You cite the cyclic nature of things, but do you really think there have ever been a larger proportion of atheists on the planet than there are right now? Science has co-opted one of the fundamental purposes of religion which is to explain how the world works.

Wow, this is, absolutely, a great piece. Thank you ever so much.

penn: alchemy has never been a universal of human cultural expression. Something more like sympathetic magic has, so perhaps that's a better analogy. Now ask: would ther ealways be people who think sympathetic magic is correct? Hell yes. Even in our medical western society we have major media stars like Oprah claiming effectively that it is true ("The Secret"). What warrant is there for thinking that it will even go away? It's a side effect of our tendency, evolved, to think in terms of agency. Until that changes, it isn't going away.

Religion is like that. It is a side effect of certain human cognitive and social evolved traits. Until they change, it is likely to be around. It may not be the majority in some cultures, but it will be around.

Logicel: Pre-packaged meals. That's all I'm sayin'...

Hmmmm, the fact that religion is some guise has been around for at least as long as people have been chiselling or scribbling down their thoughts would suggest that it isn't going away any time soon. And we still clearly need to believe there is some more congenial alternative reality where we can escape from this less than satisfactory version, witness televangelists, Stargate/Wars/Trek or Neighbours.

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 25 Oct 2008 #permalink

I have stumbled across this fascinating web site. I greatly appreciate your thinking John Wilkins. I happen to be a man of faith. Of course, I don't WANT to think of myself as having faith because I am programmed by natural selection to need it. The inherent need for community commitment signaling can easily be met my other means.

Of course, I also do not want to ACCEPT the belief that my faith actually fosters freeloading on cognitive capacities that are intractably tied to our existence as human beings. It is interesting that you reference Boyer, and I believe you generally agree that there are other social means of achieving the same dishonorable outcome, namely music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. You could almost refer these things, including religion, as some form of Maslow's level of self actualization for they all provide stimuli that is above and beyond the fundamental need to survive physically. I just question why evolution would develop such things if they have no real purpose but to hijack our cognitive resources - this seem counter productive.

In addition, I would agree with Boyer as you do, but expand his thought: disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions. I would also include these other areas in order to have philosophical integrity: music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion, and I'm sure we could add a few more. Thus, to stand against any of these is counter to our natural cognitive nature.

However, as a man of faith, I am a pretty skeptical person. I would argue that going against these components of human society is the result of deliberate, effort and work against our nature, and an honest approach to faith, in particular a healthy and authentic Christianity, would also put one at odds with most if not all of these elements of society. It would also take a considerable amount of effort to have integrity since there is so much - either as an agnostic, a secularist, or a person of faith as I have alluded to - to maintain philosophical and psychological integrity. I say this because within my realm of faith, there is just a whole lot of details that WE DO NOT KNOW. Many conservatives in my country (The USA) blindly accept the faith of their fathers without doing the hard work to come to faith on their own. But I digress...

My basic reason for maintaining my faith is because I accept it as true. Of course, I could be wrong, and since there are many details I do not know, I am open to other possibilities. I think your promotion of secularism for the primary reason to ensure that no one belief system can control or eliminate the other is an excellent view. It allows for the open debate of differences and yet the freedom to choose and follow various paths. Unfortunately, it can not force people to think and it would be a bad practice to force people to adapt a particular world view and ideological perspective anyway. Openness is better and let time determine where we end up. Of course if there is a deterministic outcome to our existence, that too will be realized over time.

Finally, I am interested in your thoughts on any of my ramblings. I would like to have the discipline and time to create and maintain a blog myself and attract honest feedback from people like you.

By Fuller Ming, Jr. (not verified) on 26 Oct 2008 #permalink

While Boyer doesn't think that religion in itself is adaptive (while I do think that, for agrarian societies)

Let's see if I understand you correctly.

You believe that we possess genetic variants that cause us to believe in God and that the alleles causing us to be non-believers were eliminated by negative selection.

Is that correct? When did these religious alleles rise to such a high frequency in humans? Was it only after our ancestors settled down to become farmers? What kind of selection coefficient would have resulted in such a rapid takeover within 50,000 years?

By that reasoning I can see why you think that religion will always be with us--it's programmed into our genome.

What I don't understand is how you explain the increasingly atheist societies of Western Europe. Are they just temporary blips that will soon return to religion? How do they overcome their genes and why?

I you had been blogging 1000 years ago would you have advocated that slavery will always be with us? Would you have pointed out the the subjugation of women is adaptive and will be with us forever? Would you have been a strong supporter of hereditary monarchies as the most efficient way of running a society? Do you think we can ever eliminate war?

Nice set of strawmen, Larry. Did you knit them yourself?

I said, quite clearly, in the post: "at the historical, cultural, level - I'm not talking about biological evolution here". You might have missed that in your haste to see me say things you expect me to say.

European societies are not especially more atheist now than they have ever been - it is just that those who have little or no interest in religion are now entitled to say so. Reading European history, one is constantly encountering those who treat religion as a not very virtuous thing.

As to your Gish galloping: Slavery is still with us. Aren't you paying attention to the various modern forms of slavery (particularly in the northern African and middle eastern parts of the world, not to mention the constant slave trade in sex workers that even finds its way into the enlightened European countries, and yours, and mine.

I do not think patriarchy is fixed biologically. It certainly is fixed culturally, and for good cultural reasons, so yes, it has been adaptive. But you, of all people, ought to know that a claim something is adaptive is not a justification for it. In fact many suboptimal things are fixed by (biological or cultural) selection, and ought to be worked against.

And in case you failed to notice this, as well, hereditary monarchies are a more stable form of government than any other kind. Read some history. Likewise I do not think it a good thing, but it most certainly is adaptive.

No, we cannot eliminate war, but we can work to see its worst effects ameliorated.

Possibly you think it a bad thing to suggest there is a human nature. I know many do. It is, however, a fact that there are species typical behavioural adaptations, like it or not, and cultural behaviour among humans and other primates sits on top of, and employs, that species typicality. Religion is a cultural adaptation, and it is a stable one. Very hard to get rid of, but relatively easy to make less harmful (it only requires constant fighting to restrict religious exceptionalism).

Go on: misunderstand that, too.

Larry wrote:

What I don't understand is how you explain the increasingly atheist societies of Western Europe.

John answered:

European societies are not especially more atheist now than they have ever been - it is just that those who have little or no interest in religion are now entitled to say so.

I think John is perfectly correct in his comment here. I have noticed a very strong tendency in the intertubes debate about belief and atheism to grossly exaggerate the levels of European atheism. The current state of affairs in Europe is that the established churches are rapidly loosing their membership and in fact in most European countries they have less that 10% of the population who are still active members or go regularly or even semi-regularly to church services. However surveys done amongst the general public show that somewhere between 70 and 80% of the people still believe in some form of god or supernatural being. When asked to define what they actually believe in, they mostly are incapable to give more than a vague answer but that they believe is indisputable. I am now guessing but I don't think you will find more than 10% of any European population who would be prepared to say that they are actively atheist and that although there is almost no social stigma attached to such a claim today. The remaining 10 to 20% would probably say that they don't know or aren't sure whether there is a god or not.

As John says all that has really changed is people's openness about their beliefs or lack of them. Also, even amongst active church members in Europe, religion is seen as something private and no longer a decisive socio-political force. Its called secularisation!

If anybody bothers to read this I am sure that several of my fellow Europeans will violently disagree with my analysis but I still think that I am right.

Nice set of strawmen, Larry. Did you knit them yourself?

I said, quite clearly, in the post: "at the historical, cultural, level - I'm not talking about biological evolution here". You might have missed that in your haste to see me say things you expect me to say.

Thanks for clearing that up. I doubt that I was the only one who was confused by your use of the word "adaptive."

If I understand you correctly, you mean that it was beneficial to societies in the past to promote a shared point of view including belief in various superstitions. Since many of these superstitious beliefs have been abandoned, I assume your claim is not meant to imply that the ancient superstitions will always be with us.

European societies are not especially more atheist now than they have ever been - it is just that those who have little or no interest in religion are now entitled to say so. Reading European history, one is constantly encountering those who treat religion as a not very virtuous thing.

We all know that atheists existed in the past. That's not the point. We all know that it is easier to abandon religion today than it was in the nineteenth century. That is the point.

There's all kinds of data showing that you are wrong. All you need to do is look at the Wikipedia article on Demographics of Atheism to see that there are several countries where the percentage of people who "believe there is a God" is below 50%. I doubt very much that this would have been true 500 years ago and I really don't understand your reluctance to admit this trend.

And in case you failed to notice this, as well, hereditary monarchies are a more stable form of government than any other kind. Read some history. Likewise I do not think it a good thing, but it most certainly is adaptive.

You missed the point. The point was that commonly held beliefs change over time. There are now a great many people who think that democracy is the only way to go. I think this change is true of religion as well but you, for some unexplained reason, think that religion is special. You seem to think that religion is here to stay.

You haven't offered any evidence to back up that belief and you haven't offered a plausible reason to believe that religion is any more special than most other superstitions that we have abandoned.

Possibly you think it a bad thing to suggest there is a human nature. I know many do. It is, however, a fact that there are species typical behavioural adaptations, like it or not, and cultural behaviour among humans and other primates sits on top of, and employs, that species typicality. Religion is a cultural adaptation, and it is a stable one. Very hard to get rid of, but relatively easy to make less harmful (it only requires constant fighting to restrict religious exceptionalism).

Go on: misunderstand that, too.

Now you are saying that religion is a cultural adaptation in 2008, right? Are you saying that it is beneficial for someone to be religious in Sweden today? Are you implying that the 50% who claim to be non-believers will soon revert to becoming believers?

I understand your point that religion may have been culturally beneficial in the past. We could debate the exact degree of importance but I'm prepared to concede the point; especially since I blogged about an ancestor who was hung by the Puritans.

But just because something was culturally beneficial in the past does not mean that it will always continue to be that way. That's where you have failed to make your case. Why is religion any different than other cultural adaptations like fear of strangers, belief in magic, or fear of gays and lesbians?

John, if I am misunderstanding your arguments, I apologize. Have you considered the possibility that it may not be all my fault?

Larry Moran:

There's all kinds of data showing that you are wrong. All you need to do is look at the Wikipedia article on Demographics of Atheism to see that there are several countries where the percentage of people who "believe there is a God" is below 50%.

Careful here. Even in Europe, the total number who believe in either a God or some kind of spirit or life-force is over 50%, usually well over that in most European countries. That's looks more like a trend in favor of mushy, New-Agey religiosity than skeptical atheism.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 27 Oct 2008 #permalink

Larry, the very first response was by a guy who noted that I was talking about cultural evolution. The only sense of adaptive I was talking about was cultural. I didn't exactly bury that point.

Incidentally, something that occurred to me later was that yes, there are cases of biological adaptation based on cultural processes - one has only to look at lactose tolerance. So there is no objective reason to doubt that a cultural movement like religion in post-agrarian societies might lead to changes in allele frequencies for particular cognitive or psychological dispositions in a relatively short time. I gather there's evidence for selection for lowered arousal in some Asian populations, for example. So I cannot see why you think it impossible that cultural changes have lead to, for example, an increase in the underlying dispositions that lead to religiosity.

But here I am making the following claim, along with Boyer, Sosis and others: there are biological dispositions that lead, in appropriate circumstances, to religiosity, and which make religion an adaptive response to the socioeconomic conditions in which these dispositions are deployed. That is definitely not to say that there are religion genes, only that religion is a developmental outcome that is scaffolded by cultural conditions in an adaptive (to the individual) way.

I do think that you are way overestimating the lack of religiosity in modern societies, and the correlate adaptiveness of being in a religion. Even in secular states like Sweden, being a member of a religion will have adaptive advantages (like aid and comfort in times of trouble). Of course it is not the only such adaptive strategy - being a member of a political party, or car appreciation group, can do exactly the same thing. But just because it is not the only adaptive response, doesn't mean it isn't an adaptive response, to modern social conditions.

As Thony points out, the figures are ambiguous, and can be misread in several ways. That people hold to some vague religious or "spiritual" (now there's a word with no denotation) views is probably a way to deflect the suspicion that atheists and agnostics are met with by the religious. Given a sufficiently high proportion of religious, that is very adaptive. It's no accident that the one group Locke exempted from toleration were those lacking religion - it indicates that the religious cannot expect special treatment from them, and so they have to compete on a level field. This raises suspicions that, from a religious perspective, one might have to negotiate in a Prisoner's Dilemma rather than a Stag Hunt (terms of decision theory and economics that indicate the different payoffs of those games - a Stag Hunt is biased towards group rewards, while a Prisoner's Dilemma is purely egoistic). So being vaguely religious allays the fears of a PD interaction - very adaptive if you ask me.

Again, your examples undercut your stance: fear of strangers remains adaptive now. Belief in magic is evinced by Oprah and is widespread. I can only think it is adaptive in that it gives individuals hope of some control when they have little. Psychologically, individuals who believe they have some control are less stressed and in better health due to reduced hormonal activity than those who take a "realistic" view. And fear of gays and lesbians, like any fear of "others", is massively adaptive when you are in a group that marginalises them.

Again I say, you are making the famous old error of thinking that because I say these things are adaptive, they must be right. I do not. Might is not right, is is not ought, The Natural is not The Good and so on. All I am saying is that these are adaptations and must be understood as such, or you will find yourself massively disappointed when you think that religion will somehow fade away. Until it ceases to be adaptive, it will persist.

I am of the view, proposed by Tom Huxley, that we must in fact work against our evolved dispositions if we are to make progress socially and ethically. But let us not fool ourselves about what we are and what we evolved to be.

Larry I don't know you but through you own web site and through your comments here and on other blogs that I read regularly I have come to respect you as a person who takes an open but rigorous scientific approach to the analysis of problems, therefore I find your claim that there are several countries where the percentage of people who "believe there is a God" is below 50% as being the information extracted from the Wikipedia article on Demographics of Atheism as at least bizarre if not disingenuous.

If we go to the Wikipedia page the very first sentence is as follows: It is difficult to quantify the number of atheists in the world. Different people interpret "atheist" and related terms differently, and it can be hard to draw boundaries between atheism, non-religious beliefs, and non-theistic religious and spiritual beliefs. Put simple all claims about the number of atheists or even non-believers in any given country must be viewed with extreme scepticism.

If however you look at the section on Europe and the individual results of the European Union survey on the subject we find the following: For the EU in general 52% of European Union citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 27% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force", even for Sweden the supposedly most atheistic country in the world the respective figures are 23% and 53%. If, as I do, you take a belief in "some sort of spirit or life force" to be a contemporary expression of a fundamental form of religious belief then we still have over 70% of the population claiming to be religious which is a long way from your claims of high levels of atheism. I think modern European use this form to express their belief because they do not want people to think that they believe in an old man in a long white beard, who sits around on clouds surrounded by white robbed harpists but in my book the phrase "some sort of spirit or life force" is a statement of a belief in a form of deism and as such a modern form of religion.

I am now guessing but I don't think you will find more than 10% of any European population who would be prepared to say that they are actively atheist and that although there is almost no social stigma attached to such a claim today

That same study (Eurobarometer) where your 52% and 27% figures come from, states that 18% do not believe in a God, spirit, life force or higher power. Since the EU countries vary in religiosity, that number will be higher within several countries.

"Actively atheist" smacks of moving the goalpost. How many are "actively religious?"

therefore I find your claim that there are several countries where the percentage of people who "believe there is a God" is below 50% as being the information extracted from the Wikipedia article on Demographics of Atheism as at least bizarre if not disingenuous.

Generally this refers to people that admitted to believing in a personal God. That's hardly a "bizarre" definition of God or theism!

It would be wrong to say that many countries in Europe are majority atheist, but Larry didn't say that so I don't know why you all are jumping on him. (However, I disagree with his personal incredulity argument against adaptive religion).

Put simple all claims about the number of atheists or even non-believers in any given country must be viewed with extreme scepticism.

But not the number of 'religious' people?

over 70% of the population claiming to be religious which is a long way from your claims of high levels of atheism.

30% is not high? And do you think this has been stable through history? Also, 'spiritual' might be a better term but it depends on your definition.

modern European use this form to express their belief because they do not want people to think that they believe in an old man in a long white beard

Or they just don't give a hoot and say "well I guess I believe in some kind of force, never really gave it much thought".

but in my book the phrase "some sort of spirit or life force" is a statement of a belief in a form of deism and as such a modern form of religion.

"Life force" is more like pantheism than deism. And it's a very watered down definition of religion we have arrived at here. The Northern European life force believers don't do anything about it.

The only sense of adaptive I was talking about was cultural.

I think your use of 'adaptive' is still a bit confusing. You say it's adaptive "for" agrarian societies, which implies that societies compete with each other.

hereditary monarchies are a more stable form of government than any other kind. Read some history. Likewise I do not think it a good thing, but it most certainly is adaptive.

Adaptive for whom? The nation? The individual people? The 'meme' itself? What is the level of selection here?

Even in secular states like Sweden, being a member of a religion will have adaptive advantages (like aid and comfort in times of trouble).

Eh, maybe if you are in some sect. The state church is normally not where you seek aid and comfort and if you do, you don't need to be a member.

it is just that those who have little or no interest in religion are now entitled to say so.

But even most religious people have little or no interest in religion...

Religion is a cultural adaptation, and it is a stable one. Very hard to get rid of

Are all stable cultural adaptations hard to get rid of? What other things would be examples of stable cultural adaptations?

Again I say, you are making the famous old error of thinking that because I say these things are adaptive, they must be right. I do not. Might is not right, is is not ought, The Natural is not The Good and so on. All I am saying is that these are adaptations and must be understood as such, or you will find yourself massively disappointed when you think that religion will somehow fade away. Until it ceases to be adaptive, it will persist.

You are misunderstanding what I said.

I don't deny that there are some behaviors that might be beneficial in some societies at some times. What I'm saying is that some of the most obvious ones, like fear of strangers, are much less important today than they were in the past. Right now, in modern Western industrialized nations, it is probably not a good idea to be afraid of everyone you don't know.

I'm trying to make the case that just because some behavior was beneficial in the past--"adaptive" in your terminology--is not a strong argument for assuming that it will always be beneficial in the future.

As far as I can tell, this is your main argument and I don't find it convincing.

I do NOT accuse of being confused about the difference between whether something is adaptive and whether it is right. You are confused about a lot of things but that isn't one of them. :-)

I am of the view, proposed by Tom Huxley, that we must in fact work against our evolved dispositions if we are to make progress socially and ethically. But let us not fool ourselves about what we are and what we evolved to be.

I don't like your use of "evolved" in these sentences, especially if you are referring to religion. Could you clarify whether you think we have "evolved" to be religious?

Remember, you are trying hard not to be misunderstood. So far it's not working very well. :-)

Thony C.,

Do you realize that all of your attempts to rationalize away the number of non-believers applys to believers as well? How do you know that the percentage of believers is accurate?

You can't have it both ways.

I think it's absurd to pretend that today's Western European societies are as religious as they were 500 years ago. Religion is on the decline. Deal with it.

John, it would be interesting if you have time to return to this thread at some point and clarify what you mean by 'adaptive', otherwise we are going to be as confused in 3 years when you present the results of your project! ;)

I intend to do a post on it. Larry clearly objects to the term being used for cultural evolution. To answer that criticvism I have to outline why I think cultural evolution is a form of Darwinian evolution on a different substrate (and why I think memes make no sense).

Religion is a social adaptation. We use the word adaptation in several senses: genetic, phenotypic, individual, populational and so on. Here I mean that it is a trait of a cultural tradition or set of traditions that are adaptive to the sociocultural environment in which they exist. We also think of economic activities (such as lending at interest, or unsecured loans, or subprime mortgages) as having some adaptive or maladaptive features.

Given that I am firmly of the view that social evolution is as darwinian (in the generic sense, hence the small initial) as biological evolution (which includes changes that are merely contingent and random as well as changes that are adaptive or spandrels upon adaptations), my argument is briefly that religion is an adaptation to the social ecology, founded upon biological impulses that are species typical behavioural traits for hominids.