Reprinted with permission of Free Inquiry magazine.

As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest waste. If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favor rival individuals who instead devote time to surviving and reproducing. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d'esprit. Ruthless utilitarianism trumps, even if it doesn't always seem that way."Anting" is the odd habit of birds such as jays of "bathing" in an ants' nest and apparently inciting the ants to invade their feathers. Nobody knows for sure what the benefit of anting is: perhaps some kind of hygiene, cleansing the feathers of parasites. My point is that uncertainty as to the purpose doesn't-nor should it-stop Darwinians from believing, with great confidence, that anting must be good for something.Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion. All this presents a major puzzle to anyone who thinks in a Darwinian way. We guessed why jays ant. Isn't religion a similar challenge, an a priori affront to Darwinism, demanding analogous explanation? Why do we pray and indulge in costly practices that, in many individual cases, more or less totally consume lives?Of course, the caveats must now come tumbling in. Religious behavior is Darwinian business only if it is widespread, not some weird anomaly. Apparently, it is universal, and the problem won't go away just because the details differ across cultures. As with language, the underlying phenomenon is universal, though it plays out differently in different regions. Not all individuals are religious, as most readers of this journal can testify. But religion is a human universal: every culture, everywhere in the world, has a style of religion that even nonpractitioners recognize as the norm for that society, just as it has a style of clothing, a style of courting, and a style of meal serving. What is religion good for?
There is a little evidence that religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases. The evidence is not good, but it would not be at all surprising. A non-negligible part of what a doctor can provide for a patient is consolation and reassurance. My doctor doesn't literally practice the laying on of hands. But many's the time I have been instantly cured of some minor ailment by a reassuringly calm voice from an intelligent face surmounting a stethoscope. The placebo effect is well-documented. Dummy pills, with no pharmacological activity at all, demonstrably improve health. That is why drug trials have to use placebos as controls. It's why homeopathic remedies appear to work, even though they're so diluted that they contain the same amount of the active ingredient as the placebo control-zero molecules.Is religion a medical placebo, which prolongs life by reducing stress? Perhaps, although the theory is going to have to run the gauntlet of skeptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion increases stress rather than decreases it. In any case, I find the placebo theory too meager to account for the massive and all-pervasive phenomenon of religion. I do not think we have religion because our religious ancestors reduced their stress levels and hence survived longer. I don't think that's a big enough theory for the job.Other theories miss the point of Darwinian explanations altogether. I refer to suggestions like, "Religion satisfies our curiosity about the universe and our place in it." Or "Religion is consoling. People fear death and are drawn to religions which promise we'll survive it." There may be some psychological truth here, but it's not in itself a Darwinian explanation. As Steven Pinker has said in How the Mind Works (Penguin, 1997): only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.
A Darwinian version of the fear-of-death theory would have to be of the form, "Belief in survival after death tends to postpone the moment when it is put to the test." This could be true or it could be false-maybe it's another version of the stress and placebo theory-but I shall not pursue the matter. My only point is that this is the kind of way in which a Darwinian must rewrite the question.Psychological statements to the effect that people find some belief agreeable or disagreeable are proximate, not ultimate explanations. As a Darwinian, I am concerned with ultimate questions.Darwinians make much of this distinction between proximate and ultimate. Proximate questions lead us into physiology and neuroanatomy. There is nothing wrong with proximate explanations. They are important, and they are scientific. But my pre-occupation is with Darwinian ultimate explanations. If neuroscientists find a "god center" in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me want to know why the god center evolved. Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god center survive better than rivals who did not? The ultimate Darwinian question is not a better question, not a more profound question, not a more scientific question than the proximate neurological question. But it is the one I happen to be talking about here.
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