Religion puzzles the rational and scientific imagination for two reasons. First, why do people believe in supernatural agents in the absence of factual evidence? Second, why do these beliefs often cause such harmful behaviors, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son Isaac for his God?
There are two broad categories of answers to these questions. First, religious beliefs and practices might be just as irrational and impractical as they seem. Presumably, they persist as byproducts of beliefs and practices that are more rational and useful in other contexts. Second, despite appearances, religious beliefs and practices might have a hidden rationality and utility after all.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a champion of the later view, which is embodied in his famous definition of religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”. Not only did Durkheim postulate a functional basis for religion, but he specifically identified the creation of a moral community as its primary function.
Social scientists and humanist scholars have had over a century to resolve this issue by deciding among the alternatives or delineating how both might be true. For the most part, they failed, in part because the study of religion was spread among many academic disciplines and lacked any kind of unity. Then the field of Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) emerged at the end of the 20th Century as part of a more general rethinking of all human-related subjects that gave rise to terms such as Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Anthropology, and Evolutionary Economics. ERS has made rapid progress during the last 20 years, in part by organizing the vast amount of empirical information on religion that has accumulated, much as Darwin was able to organize the vast amount of information on plants and animals during his day.
The current issue of the academic journal Religion, Brain, and Behavior provides an excellent snapshot of the current state of ERS. It includes a target article titled “The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach” and nine commentaries by authors who come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds but speak the “common language” of evolutionary theory. An editorial by the journal’s editors sets the stage by providing a concise history of ERS and its roots extending back to Darwin.
The target article is authored by myself, Yasha Hartberg, Ian MacDonald, Jonathan Lanman, and Harvey Whitehouse, based on a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study religion and spirituality as practiced in the context of everyday life. We make the case that any sizable human population is an ecosystem of functionally organized groups (including but not restricted to religious groups) and that the diversity of these groups needs to be studied in the same way as biological diversity. This includes the creation of field sites around the world, something that is taken for granted for biological research but needs to be created for the study of cultural ecosystems. A pair of essays by Harvey Whitehouse and myself published in the Evolution Institute’s online Social Evolution Forum elaborates on the need for field sites.
Taylor & Francis, the publishers of Religion, Brain, and Behavior, has generously made access to the editorial, target article, and commentaries free for a two month period. The rapid progress made by ERS is an example of how all human-related subjects can be understood from an evolutionary perspective.