Religion began as an in-group v. out-group mechanism -- an adaptive strategy for group warfare. While religion facilitated cooperative endeavor within our own tribe, it engendered hostility rather than compassion for outsiders.
It seems to be the nature of social animals to form groups – that fight against other groups. A group that is able to work together enhances the spread of its genes by working together to conquer neighbors. Yes, conquering other tribes -- and preventing other tribes from conquering yours -- is the greatest original advantage of social cooperation. Ants, for example, are a social species. They're also territorial and fight pitched battles at their borders with neighboring groups.
When our ancestors were hunter-gathers, as hominids have been for the vast majority of their history, war was small-scale and frequent. Bands of males attacked other bands of males – as chimpanzees do today.
“Chimpanzees in fact occupy territories that are patrolled and defended by bands of males. Through raids and ambushes, they try to pick off the males of a neighboring group one by one until they are able to annex the group’s territory and females.” (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct 48)
Commitment and sacrifice are good for the group, but bad for individuals. A situation in which every one else was courageous and took risks to protect the group, while I could stay back, avoid the risks of fighting while reaping the benefits of keeping rival groups at bay, would be ideal for my genes. But if everyone followed that strategy, the group would be undefended and short-lived. So human groups put a lot of energy into keeping freeloading low and group commitment high. We monitor, condemn, and punish those who don’t do their part. Our survival depended on it.
Small groups used gossip to keep people in line, but once a group got past about 150 people, there were too many for gossip to keep up with. We needed another strategy. And that’s where religion comes in. Rituals and shared music, dancing and drumming, helped our ancestors rev up certain neuropeptides and hormones and neural pathways of group connectedness. We felt much more connected to the group. Public ritual and ceremony also allowed monitoring who wasn’t participating -- and therefore who wasn’t so reliably connected to the group.
Moreover, our sociable brains, highly attuned to other people – who to approve and disapprove of, and who is approving and disapproving of us – are primed to see the same thing in the natural world: that the sky and earth, too, are monitoring us with approval and disapproval. We told stories that reinforced the sense of person-like monitors, judges – and sometimes guides – in earth, sky, sun, moon, rivers, mountains, animals.
Religion – shared rituals, ceremonies, music, dance, and sacred stories – binds us together. Religion exists in every human culture because it is so good as a functional adaptation to bind our group together so we can compete successfully – violently – against other groups.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Religion started getting out of control. Not that it was ever exactly in anybody’s control. I mean: this device for commitment, connection, monitoring, and the useful illusion of being monitored, started spreading beyond its purpose. Slowly, the connection we had to our tribe also connected us to people outside our tribe, even to our enemies.
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This is part 3 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 4.
Previous: Part 2.
Beginning: Part 1.