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Lipton Matthews | Religion has shaped all human societies

Published:Saturday | June 1, 2019 | 12:00 AMLipton Matthews/Contributor

Belief in a deity is a concept some atheists struggle to understand. Many cannot fathom why anyone would seek to worship a mystical figure he does not see. Scoffing at religious beliefs is currently fashionable, with believers often being ridiculed for daring to express their views.

Atheists are often seen as logical, smart and intellectually superior to religious people. Some are even quick to declare that atheism is the logical result of human evolution. But an examination of evidence will show that religious beliefs underpinned by theism are quite natural and normal. In evolutionary studies, the two main views accounting for the existence of religion are adaptationism and the by-product, explanation.

Adaptationist assertions posit that religion evolved to foster group cohesion along with genetic fitness of the individual. This perspective has two competing theories – group level adaptation and individual level adaptation. Group level adaptation proponents argue that maladaptive features of religion may seem punitive at the individual level, but they serve to create devotion to the group, thereby enabling the group to compete more effectively through the acquisition of greater solidarity (Wilson and Sober, 1994).

Human beings have an innate desire to form connections; thus the pro-social nature of even costly religious rituals serves to facilitate intra-group cooperation and survival (Bering, 2002). Being ostracised from a group puts the typical individual under immense pressure. Therefore, to develop a sense of group identity and belonging, people will engage in harmful activities to prove their loyalty to the collective.

Invariably, social unity results in groups that are more likely to win wars and engage in long-term planning. Furthermore, religious belief in a supreme being also allows groups to make sense of the world.

In most religions, there is a moral code guided by divine inspiration. The persuasive power of religion constrains group members from exhibiting antisocial traits, consequently leading to increased trust (Wilson, 2002).

Though critics postulate that morality and group cohesion may exist without theistic beliefs, the argument that religion is useful for cohesion is not vitiated. De Waal (2013) opines that morality is wired into the biology of humans; hence, we cannot possibly be good because of God. Yet he did not promulgate that religion has no utility.

Conversely to what atheists may believe, the non-existence of God is not incompatible with the functionality of religion. On the other hand, individual level adaptation theorists assert that non-adaptive religious practices such as ritual sacrifices promote cohesive groups and individual fitness (Sosis, 2004).


Dangerous ritual sacrifices tend to be too costly to fake; therefore, by engaging in such activities, participants improve their reputation and gain a wider variety of mates. Participation in religious activities is also correlated with higher levels of involvement in volunteering and greater well-being (Putnam, 2009 et al).

Religious thinking is perpetuated due to increasing benefits delivered to the individual. However, others opine that religion is a spandrel or by-product of evolution. According to scientists affirming this view, our ancestors who survived to procreate possessed what scientists call a hypersensitive agency detecting device (HADD).

In essence, HADD is responsible for allowing humans to project agency on to non-human entities. An advantage of this mechanism is that it protects humans from danger. For example, if we assume that tigers act on their own accord, we will not interfere with their environment. Hence, as a survival strategy in the past, HADD was very necessary. But it also resulted in extremities, such as attaching autonomy to even weather patterns and errors of human judgement. Supernatural beliefs spurred by HADD provided the framework for theistic doctrines.

Religion, however, being a by-product of evolution, does not undermine the case for having religious beliefs. On the contrary, it justifies belief in God as a logical outcome of possessing an overactive agency detection system.

Moreover, research shows that aspects of religious belief are mediated by major brain networks; thereby confirming theories situating religious belief within the framework of evolutionary and cognitive functions (Grafman et al, 2009).

Religion has shaped all human societies and religious people are in the majority. Therefore, it is atheism that is abnormal and unnatural, not belief in God.

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