Where Religion Came From

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 1

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)” “Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

“Church” – or any sort of faith congregation: synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – actually is good for quite a lot, though it turns out religion and war have a shared origin.

As Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
Don’t we need that? In these times of political turmoil, of social conflict and apparent chaos in our national government, we need more than ever a way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.” We are wired to have this need.

I want to look today at where this need came from – so we can understand it better. Religion was an adaptation to the conditions of early humans. But how adaptive is religion to modern conditions? The role of religion in modern society is problematic. Let’s ask whether there is a better way to adapt our wiring to modern conditions so we have more faith and more community and less war and conflict.

Part One: Where Religion Came From

The emergence of coherent society begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains “capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (W. Irons) So there was selective pressure to develop the capacity to track and remember others’ behavior.

A second force in the emergence of society was the need for groups to cooperate in order to out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups. Social cohesion required rules, and some method of communicating and enforcing them – keeping most of the members more-or-less in line most of the time. These selective pressures turned our ancestors into the sorts of beings with a facility for learning moral rules.

Reciprocal altruism gradually turned into a system of moral rules. Language allowed us to keep tabs on more and more of each other, which let us maintain a larger group, which allowed a more cohesive and larger fighting force and a better chance of defeating rival groups. Our ancestors learned a technique that we readily recognize and still use, though sometimes we say we don't like it: we call it gossip. Our ancestors met in small groups to monitor others' behavior and moralize about it.

Gossip emerged among early humans because it worked. It tracked who was trustworthy, reinforced the social ties of the gossipers, and strengthened the moral rules of the tribe. There are solid evolutionary reasons why we humans are attracted to gossiping. It’s a part of the system of maintaining the social order.

There is, however, a limit to how far gossip can go. Researchers find that moral rules reinforced through gossip can maintain unity up to about 150 members. Indeed, gossip magazines today maintain a list of no more than 150 celebrities that they keep up with the gossip about. More than that, and it’s too much to keep up with – the gossip just doesn’t pull us in. Larger groups need to be held together with something else. That's where religion comes in.

Religion facilitates cooperation among a group's members by serving to reinforce commitments to each other in a recognizable way. Participating in a group's rituals psychologically reinforces your actual commitment to the group and also lets the group know you're committed to them.
“participation in a ritual tends to alter individuals' brain states and to cause them to feel emotions of identity with a group more strongly and to hold this feeling more firmly in memory.” (Eugene Aquili, The Spectrum of Ritual, 1979)
Reciting and listening to sacred stories works the same way: it bonds us to the group with which we share the story.

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This is Part 1 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 2: Religion and Social Health
Part 3: Evolving Religion

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