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Spiritual Meditations ( 8 Dec 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Roots of Religion from the Evolutionary Perspective


By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam

December 08, 2013

Throughout history and across all cultures why have humans been so prone to believe in higher powers and to be religious? Religion has many aspects but for this article the basic idea is related to supernatural powers with “agencies” to affect human behaviour.

It is clear that these beliefs and practices have appeared in some form since we became species, primarily on evidence from burial rituals, existing about a hundred and twenty five thousand years ago. Much more elaborate organisation of religious practices emerged with the advent of agriculture and civilization, around ten to twelve thousand years ago. All known societies have been permeated with religion, even in “secular” countries like India and America, where over 90% of the general public believes in Higher Powers.

The sentences to follow does not want to deal with the controversial topic of whether there is or not a Higher Being, and if there is, then of what sort or what your believes may or may not be. Let us consider this universal human tendency to have such believes and associated religious practices. Now number one, from the perspective of evolution, what capacities would be needed to hold such religious believes: one would be symbolic communications, including language and narrative; second would be  the ability to have a sense of continuity between past, present and future; third is the tendency to attribute causes and intentionality to events in the world and more specifically to sense some mysterious force operating behind every day events; fourth would be the ability to ascribe mental states of others, even in inanimate objects and perhaps fifth would be complex emotions like awe.

We know that primates have abilities in some of these areas; indeed chimps have incredible cognitive abilities and capacities. They and other primates have elements of empathy and theory of mind. But the question here, as in other areas of the mind, is how continuous or discontinuous the jump is with the advent of modern homo sapiens.

Language, symbolisation and abstraction and our huge tendencies to attribute mind and intentions to others, even to inanimate objects are major contenders for uniquely human skills, which may have helped to propel religious beliefs, practices and behaviours.

Let us focus more specifically on agency detection and causal attribution: all human children begin to do this as early as one and a half years of age. In other words, we are a species that sees personal meaning, control, and agency, a sense of action in lots of natural events and we instinctively do so from very young ages. When faced with the wonders of nature, the terror of death, it may be natural for such a species to attribute human like qualities to objects in the world and to acts of nature.

Consider this, another huge point, human commitment to group living may have played a key role. So as social group size increased, from roughly 50 in chimps to the more common mean number of 150 in humans, there was a great need for means of exerting social control. Religious powers can serve as a true Higher Power to enforce restrains of selfishness, identification with an in-group to promote strong social bonds, to incur a moral imperative to follow rules.

Now with the more recent advent of agriculture and permanent settlements, in the past 10,000 to 12,000 years, hierarchical societies emerged based on division of labour. More elaborated religion served in part the objectives of maintaining social order and sometimes justifying hugely powerful royalty.

And we cannot forget the human’s narrative abilities. The mythic skills, which not only convey meaning through story-telling but also have given humans the ability to project backwards and forwards in time, confront us directly with the suffering prospect of our own death.

Can we consider religious beliefs to be a true adaptation which have been naturally selected, some evolutionary psychologists believe so, given that religion has played a key role in social bonding among hunter-gatherers and early humans; but others consider religion to be a by-product, what is sometimes called an Exaptation.

The proneness to be religious is, at least, moderately heritable. So there is some genetic tendency underlying individual differences in religious conviction and belief of some kind of Higher Power. But the particular form of religious believes one has are virtually zero in terms of heritability. These differences are clearly a result of socialization and family practice.

Recently, in 2007, Barbara King’s book ‘Creating God’ argues that religion emerged from primates’ intense attachment bonds to early caregivers, feeling empathy and deep need for belongingness. In 2009, Robert Wright wrote ‘The Evolution of God’ and he argued that despite the clear evidence of evolutionary origins of religious tendencies, over the period of recorded history humans have created deistic entities less and less revengeful and more and more tolerant and compassionate as the direct result of social structures that tended to favour cooperation.


1.       King, Evolving God

2.       Wright, The Evolution of God

3.       Hinshaw, Human Mind