by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2004
One of the long-standing mysteries of my life -- why formal religious belief is so pervasive among humans -- may now have an answer rooted in evolutionary principles. The answer is: to ward off the bad effects of mankind's extraordinary ability to think of himself or herself as a distinct person -- the ability to be self-aware.
Formal religion, such as the various forms of monotheism, originated as a way of explaining the workings of the world around us. In that sense, they were a new technology -- one that replaced earlier forms, such as polytheism and shamanism, in the task of explaining the workings of the world around us.
In its turn, religion has been replaced as an explainer of the workings of the universe by science. Ever since the time of the Industrial Revolution, science has explained the workings of the universe better than religion has. Yet religion has not withered away; it has thrived. Why is this? Clearly, religion is doing something for mankind other than explaining how the universe works. It is fulfilling some other need, and doing it well.
Scientists have been studying the thinking processes of humans and animals. One of the conclusions that comes from these observations is that humans are one of only a few kinds of animals that show signs of being self-aware -- for example only a few kinds of animals can look in a mirror and think, “That's me!" Other animals will look at their mirror image and see a member of their species and nothing special beyond that. Not only can humans think, “That's me", they can also think, “That's someone else. And that someone else doesn't know what I know." Self-awareness is the foundation of teaching -- passing knowledge from one individual to another and from one generation to another.
This feature of being self-aware has produced many benefits to mankind. Mankind has learned how to question how the universe works and make alterations to it. Other organisms know how to favorably alter their environment, but none are more aggressive at doing so than humans. On the social side, because of self-awareness, mankind has developed the capacity to efficiently teach and pass on information from one generation to the next. Mankind has also developed the capacity for adults to intervene in the marriage choices of their children. These are huge differences between how humans interact with each other and how other animals interact with other members of their same species.
But self-awareness is a powerful tool, and like any powerful tool, it can hurt as well as help.
There is a "dark side" to this powerful tool of self-awareness. The dark side is asking "dangerous questions" -- questions that produce answers that don't help mankind survive. One of the earliest questions on the "dangerous questions list" is, “Why am I here at all?" As many thinkers and storytellers have pointed out, if a person asks this question too hard, they risk becoming nihilistic. And if a person becomes darkly nihilistic, they see no meaning in life and stop trying to succeed. This is usually not good for the species.
But self-awareness is a very useful tool, so turning away from it completely in order to avoid the harm of asking dangerous questions is not the best choice for mankind, either.
Formal religion provides a defense against one of the dangerous questions. It does so by giving the question asker something to believe in. The answer to the question, “Why am I here?" becomes "Because God has something for me to do."
This answer has a lot of survival value, even if the answer has absolutely no relation to the reality of the world we live in.
So, it may be that religion has enormous survival value to a being that has become self-aware. The survival value is letting the being ask lots of questions that will improve the being's lot in life, but prevent that being from getting "trapped" in some despairing loop caused by asking the question, “Why am I here on this world?" and not getting a satisfactory answer.
Religion may be really rotten at explaining how the universe works, but it can still be very helpful in mankind's survival. It is helpful because it allows mankind to be self-aware and use the powerful tool of asking very interesting questions about the world around us. It does so by protecting mankind from dark nihilism when a person asks questions about, “Why am I here on this world?" Religion gives answers to that question which promote survival, and in the natural selection game that we live in on this world, survival matters more than truth.
-- The End --