What Good Is Religion?

From an evolutionary standpoint, religious behavior is pointless. Why do humans waste time, money, even their lives on it?

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?

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Richard Dawkins
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