What Religion is For

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Religion consumes up to a tenth of economic productivity in some societies. So it must produce corresponding benefits. What are they?

By religion, I mean any supernatural belief system that is invoked with the intention of altering the outcomes of an individual, or group. Clearly, there are many different types of religion ranging from the animism practiced in small-scale hunter-gatherer societies to the more grandiose efforts carried on in Egypt at the time of construction of the Great Pyramids.

A Basic Function in Reducing Anxiety

  • Religion evidently functions as a mechanism for dealing with unpleasant emotions associated with difficult life experiences, such as danger, bereavement, disappointment, disease. So it is most useful when life is most difficult, as in disease-ravaged poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa and least useful when life is good, as is true of social democracies in Europe. This perspective is useful because it helps explain the emergence of religious beliefs around the world as well as their current decline in developed countries (see my post: Why Atheism Will Replace Religion). Yet it is not comprehensive. Among the many functions commonly attributed to modern religions, some of the key ones follow:
  • Gives mythical context, purpose, or sense of meaning to people’s lives.
  • Provides political organization as illustrated by Islamic republics.
  • Organizes charities and social clubs, runs schools, hospitals, and hostels.
  • Is a source for legal and ethical mores as illustrated by Sharia law or the Ten Commandments.
  • Dictates social responsibilities and supports family life.
  • Specifies food customs, Sabbath observance, holiday celebrations, purification rituals, styles of acceptable dress, etc.

It seems unlikely that religion first arose to address any of these problems. Important though they are, all are social functions. Thus the moral function of religion emerged in the more complex societies following the Agricultural Revolution. When religion first evolved, it likely emerged because of the Darwinian advantages to individuals.

So how did early religions help our ancestors to cheat death or raise more offspring? As to survival: religious practices can reduce stress thereby improving health and helping people live longer healthier lives (2). What about reproductive success? Successful modern religions promote family life and encourage fertility. Whether they would have had the same consequences in the remote past is less clear.

More religious people do produce larger families. In part, that is because they stick with practices that less religious people have abandoned. They are more likely to get married, for example, and women are more likely to be full time homemakers. Conservative religious people are less likely to use effective modern birth control methods.

The tone of most religions is, and always has been, pro-family and pro-childbearing because the reproductive success of members translates into the success of the religion by swelling congregations. Conversely, religions that reject sexuality and reduce fertility, such as the Shakers, steadily lose members and die out – a clear case of natural selection at work.

Whether religion affected fertility amongst hunter-gatherers is difficult to say. Indigenous people are generally not religious zealots but none are completely lacking in religiosity either. Indeed, religious rituals are inseparable from other aspects of their daily lives. So it is virtually impossible to know whether religious practices have any impact on fertility independently of other aspects of the forager lifestyle. The case for fertility enhancement by religion is thus far weaker for ancestral humans than it is for modern people.

Fertility enhancement is not a compelling explanation for the emergence of religion amongst our forager ancestors. So what about the alternative view that religion evolved because it helped our ancestors to deal with psychological stress thus favoring health and longevity?

Religion as Stress Reduction

The stress theory of religion is well illustrated by Malinowski's research on protective rituals performed by Trobriand Islanders before going fishing. These rituals were performed only before venturing into rough waters outside the reefs, and never before fishing in the calm waters of the lagoon.

Research shows that religious rituals (and secular meditation) reduce physiological arousal that is thought to provide health benefits such as reduced blood pressure. The magnitude of any such health benefit is a matter of ongoing controversy with different studies showing benefits that range from very large to nothing.

Even if the health benefits are negligible, religious rituals can be maintained if they help people to feel better about their lives. By analogy, people who feel badly about their lives often purchase a lottery ticket to improve their mood. Objectively, this seems like a waste of money but it works well enough at at an emotional level that playing the lottery is actually addictive.

Not all rituals are calming, either, and some involve pain or self-denial. Religious services may frighten children with the threat of hellfire in an afterlife, presumably in an effort to induce moral behavior. In societies that practice witchcraft, there is a constant fear of malicious spells but such problems may reflect conflict amongst clans. Such supernatural conflict may be less costly than physical aggression.

On balance, it seems reasonable to assume that religious rituals and associated beliefs helped people to confront the ever-present anxieties of living in a dangerous and uncertain world, making for greater equanimity in the face of misfortunes, and improved health. This is the only function of religion that can account for its emergence amongst our foraging ancestors.