How Natural Selection Impacts the Institutions that Oppose It
We all experience the frustration of disagreeing with someone we care about. We struggle to see how they have developed their views, but also become perplexed when they can’t see ours.
We can feel something to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt, but see clearly in others that they do not accept the same truth.
How are beliefs shaped? Why do some beliefs linger longer than others? And how do new ideas develop into long-lasting religious movements?
And, can evolution help us better understand the religious beliefs and institutions we find all around us?
Everything Evolves Always
Evolution is not strictly a biological process. The more I learn about and ponder on the Principles of Evolution, the more I see them play out in all aspects of life.
The influence of evolution is clear in the life sciences, such as biology and genetics, where the changes in DNA appear as physical traits in living organisms. These changes to traits then impact the chances of survival for the individual and for the other plant and animal species within the ecosystem.
But, there is a strong argument to be made that the principles of evolution impact much more than just biologically living organisms. Human psychology, sociology, and culture also evolve over time and we see this play out through the evolution of our socially living organisms or human institutions.
What institutions am I referring to? — interpersonal relationships, family units, neighborhoods, school, cities, sports teams, governments, non-profit organizations, companies, military units, political parties, and, yes, religions.
In evolution, species evolve as they adapt to changes in environmental inputs. Those that adapt quickly are able to thrive. Those that aren’t able to adapt become extinct.
Human institutions, such as religion, must live or die based on the same principles.
The Benefit of Religion
How the first religions came about, what tenants they held, and how they impacted the lives of their adherents I cannot say.
But, I can say that religion has, from an evolutionary perspective, served groups of people very well over time.
Religion can unite people, motivate them, keep them in line, and reveal those who are not aligned with the group. Religion can convince individuals to fight meaningless wars thousands of miles from home. Religion can cajole individuals and entire nations into consecrating their time, money, and all they have to support, build, and share the religion.
We may always disagree on the individual Dogmas of the world’s religions and we can certainly observe how religion has stunted social, medicinal, and technological progress throughout the ages and even today.
Yet, to argue that religion has not played a major role in the survival of large scale groups seems shortsighted.
Emile Durkheim’s argued that religion has three major functions in society:
- It provides social cohesion to help maintain social solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs.
- Social control to enforce religious-based morals and norms to help maintain conformity and control in society.
- It offers meaning and purpose to answer any existential questions.
The religious fervor of the Hebrews has sustained them as a people through thousands of years. The Emperor Constantine used Christianity as a way to unite all of the Roman Empire under a single idealism. The religion of Islam was used to unify the Middle East and is still used as a mechanism of control today.
On a smaller scale, religions such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness were used to unite people behind a common cause in situations that would have otherwise torn the groups apart.
The Descent of Religion
Religions, just like biological life forms, go through periods of slow change and periods of rapid evolutionary progress.
From a religious perspective, these moments of rapid progress seem to take place during large scale movements of people (the settling of the Americas), shifts in political power (Constantine assuming rule in Rome), or during periods of oppression and unrest (Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis).
Among today’s major religious belief systems, we would be hard pressed to find a sect that does not have its roots in the ancient world.
This make sense as evolution is a type of invention process and, just as one technological invention needs thousands of precursors in order to take place, one evolutionary change (be it biological, psychological, or cultural) needs thousands of precursors as well.
Among the three major Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — there are nearly as many sects as there are places to practice their unique doctrines and ceremonies.
Christians, of which there are 2.4 billion followers in the world, has hundreds of different denominations, with the Catholic church being the most common ancestor.
Christianity is often divided between two theologies — Eastern and Western, with six (or seven) sub-branches: (1) Catholicism, (2) Protestantism, (3) Eastern Orthodoxy, (4) Anglicanism, (5) Oriental Orthodoxy, (6) Assyrians and sometimes (7) Restorationism.
Each of these branches then contains dozens or even hundreds of their own sects. Some religions, such as Mormonism, have many of their own sub-branches as well. The LDS or Mormon church, which was founded in April 1830 in the state of New York, now has 12 commonly recognized sub-sects and hundreds of splinter groups that choose to remain hidden.
Islam is a religion with nearly 1.8 billion adherents. Though the Koran specifically forbids the creation or division into sects, there are dozens of recognized Islamic sects and countless groups practicing their own version of the religion.
These sects include Sunnis, Tablighis, Shias, Ismailis, Sufis, Wahabis, Ahmaddiys, Maliki Sunni, and Shafei Sunnis.
A quick Google search will reveal dozens of well articulated evolutionary charts of the Islamic faith.
Today there are approximately 14.5 million Jewish people in the world. Despite being an ethnically based religion, Judaism has also branched into various subgroups of belief and practice.
The primary sub-sects or movements within Judaism include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
Many religious movements hinge on the treatment of scripture and doctrines. More fundamentalist groups turn back to ancient scripture, ceremonies, and rituals fearful that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous from a spiritual perspective.
Others choose to not accept the scriptures and their doctrines as factual, but rather allegorical. They see the scriptures as interesting narratives from which to learn, but not something on which to base all decisions.
Similar to all social groups, religions change over time in order to remain relevant, to tackle new types of issues, and frankly to ensure their survival.
Religion is Dependent on Evolutionary Principles for Survival
As a believer of a religion it is often tempting to look at the success of the organization as proof of its divine efficacy. It can be difficult to satisfactorily answer questions such as, “How could my religion have become what it is, if it wasn’t because of God?”
The simple truth is that you can ask that same question about any of the thousands of current religions — or any other human institution for that matter — but it doesn’t mean that God had anything to do with the success.
So what is it that allows religious movements to survive, grow, and thrive?
This is a question with a complex answer. There are too many factors to ever truly know why some religions expand and others fizzle never having risen above cult status.
But, when we view religions through the Principles of Evolution, we start to see some interesting correlations between the natural world and the religious world.
Environments are the sum total of external stimuli that individuals and species must navigate in order to survive. Religious cultures are the environments in which religious adherents find themselves.
Evolution works in such a way that the individuals within the environment help to shape the environment (e.g., beavers build dams and change the landscape).
When it comes to religion there are at least two meta-environments that become important: (1) the closed-off environment within the religion and (2) the larger social environment in which the religion exists.
As individuals navigate the internal environment of religions, they help to shape the religion, and thus affect the religions ability to survive within the larger social environment.
Many times the external social environment is used, through fear, to reinforce the internal religious environment. While it may seem that conforming to the outside world may be the best approach to a religions survival, many times the opposite is true.
By positioning the outsiders view as evil, dangerous, or corrupted the religion is able to enhance the solidarity within the group, making it stronger than before.
Diversity is a critical component of a species ability to survive. It allows for responses to changes in an environment with new, more adapted traits. Without variation, a species will inevitably succumb to the forces of change and become extinct.
Religions face the same existential dilemma, yet they have very strong structures in place to suppress variation.
As vigorously as religions attempt to claim that the changes to their beliefs or practices comes from ‘above’ the true evolutionary force of a religion is it’s members.
How a person chooses to interact with their religion — either to support the status quo, fight against it, or improve it — depends on that individual person.
Each of these three approaches take on various forms of behavior, but in general the response from the group is predictable.
- Those that support the status quo will be praised.
- Those that fight against it will be ousted.
- Those that seek to improve it will be vilified and treated with suspicion and possibly threats.
When internal forces seek to add diversity to the religion’s doctrines or practices, the organization will likely make an effort to suppress it. The validation for the suppression will take many forms, but certainly one of them will be the danger to the group as a whole.
However, when external forces arise that support the internal forces of change, the religion will often move quickly to adapt. Ironically, these forces are often the impetus for the members’ changing views.
The participants that survive after questioning the status quo strengthen the religion, pushing its boundaries and solidifying its updated doctrines.
Its not uncommon for new doctrines or new interpretations of doctrines to arise. With time these new ways of thinking about things spreads throughout the follower base and the leadership of the religion must choose to adopt the updated interpretation or alienate a large number of their constituency.
Strangely the adherents don’t seem to mind, when new directives come down from the top. In many cases they see change as a good thing. I’ve had friends tell me that changes to their church’s policies have, “Made it easier to live the religion”.
Competition is a key component of evolution. The individuals within a natural ecosystem must compete for the limited resources of that ecosystem. In biology we often see the most adaptable individuals survive and pass on their genetic characteristics.
In religion, competition takes the form of ideas as well as individuals. We see competition play out as the most adaptable survive and pass on their commitment to religious beliefs and practices.
The participants within a religion are either well adapted and comply with the teachings of the religion, which in turn strengthens the religion, or they are not able to adapt and they die off (i.e., leave the religion). Conversely, ideas that are too difficult to adapt to, can also become the extinct factor.
Those who are better able to comply become leaders of the group and thus examples of what a good member ‘should be’. This holding up of compliant members then reinforces the behaviors that allow individuals to thrive within the religion.
Thus adaptation to the religious environment leads to greater and greater adherence to the beliefs and practices of the religion. This is how fanaticism comes about.
On the flip side, those who are not able to comply with the teaching of the religion (those who are not well adapted to compete in the environment) are expelled. They become outcasts, sinners, gentiles, apostates, and scapegoats. The fear of this treatment helps to keep many would-be dissenters in line with the teachings of the religion. Thus, the religion is strengthened by weeding out the weak.
Ironically, ideas that are dismissed from a religion often float away with little fan fair.
This is inline with evolutionary principles, as the inventions (beliefs and practices) that work well at keeping people committed survive and the ones that push people beyond their breaking point eventually die out.
Taking a hard look at what religion has done and is currently doing, can certainly be disheartening. For me, remembering that everything evolves is something that helps keep the negative feelings at bay.
Some in the scientific community become frustrated or even enraged at religions for suppressing ideas and oppressing people. And, these scientists have good reason to want to free their fellow humans from the firm grip religion has on their lives.
However, to look at religion as something separate from the evolutionary process, is to take a step backwards.
Evolution can help us put many things into a proper context. It’s not to say that those things are acceptable, but in understanding how they come about we have taken a step forward in determining how to correct them.