Robin Dunbar examines the possible evolutionary role of religious thinking Gabriel Andrade The Skeptic

Putin’s military advances in Ukraine have motivated me to have a better understanding of Russian history. A central event was the raskol, a 17th Century schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. The split was due to many factors, but a central issue was whether the sign of the cross should be done with two fingers, or with three. Tens of thousands of people died over this.

Is this the only example of silly religious disputes with momentous consequences? Of course not. The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054 because (amongst other things) they could not agree whether they should use leavened or unleavened bread in communion. Virtually all major religions have had similar schisms.

Considering the frequency of schisms in religions, one must conclude that they are not really about leavened bread or hand gestures with two fingers. They are about numbers. Religions work well in small groups. When they grow too large, they inevitably split, bringing the group again to a smaller number. Trivial silly things (such as the two fingers) are merely an excuse to keep groups smaller and tightly knit.

This is a main thesis of Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved. The author — a key figure in evolutionary psychology — is well-known for the number that bears his name. According to the “Dunbar’s number” hypothesis, human beings can sustain stable social relationships with around 150 people, thus reflecting the social conditions in which the human species evolved. A religion such as Catholicism may claim over one billion people in the world, but it is bound to have inner factions. Indeed, that is the case with orders: Dominicans, Jesuits, Carmelites, Benedictines, etc. But even within those orders, there are bitter divisions. For example, Franciscans are split over how to define poverty, and consequently, there are now Discalced, Recollects, Riformati, Capuchins, and a few other factions.

As Dunbar explains, organisations:

contain individuals who, left to their own devices, naturally develop idiosyncratic beliefs, and eventually drift apart culturally and intellectually. If the community is below about 150 in size, such disagreements can be dealt with in face-to-face discussions where compromises may be worked out as a result of the mutual obligations that exist between individuals who know each other well. But once community size significantly exceeds this figure, these mechanisms will not work. People do not meet up sufficiently often to maintain cultural coherence.

Dunbar is careful not to offer a generalised explanation of the origins of religion. He reviews the classical theories of Frazer, Tylor, Marx and Durkheim, and finds value in those approaches, but still considers that it is impossible to reduce religion to a single etiological dimension. While a tendency towards religious behavior is probably hardwired into our brain, Dunbar is not certain whether it is an adaptation, or a side effect of other adaptations.

It does appear that religion offers some advantages (and so in that sense, it may be an adaptation). It provides some sense of security in the face of a hostile world. Religion can also boost placebo responses and may therefore serve some healing purpose.

Dunbar claims that “there is evidence that religious people are happier and more contented with their lives.” For all I know, Dunbar is correct, as many studies do indicate as much. But an important philosophical question ought to be asked: is happiness all that matters? I personally believe John Stuart Mill was onto something when he famously said that:

it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

Sure, one can take comfort in the idea that Hitler is burning in hell and grandma is playing the harp sitting on a cloud in heaven. But isn’t it more valuable to question the plausibility of the afterlife, even if it becomes a more depressing endeavor? Is truth less important than happiness?

Be that as it may, Dunbar insists that the origins of religion must be understood considering the demographic conditions of the Paleolithic. The prime religion must have been some shamanic mystical practice that catered to small communities— once again, the number 150 accounts for much. Dunbar explains that:

ancestral religions were informal, immersive and designed to bond very small hunter-gatherer communities of 100–200 individuals living in dispersed camps of 35–50… These religions have little to do with morality or moral codes as such, and they have everything to do with community bonding.

But as urban settlements grew, new religious adjustments were needed to sustain the cohesion of groups that surpassed by far the number 150. This type of religions (very similar to the major religions of modern times) — so Dunbar explains—

constitute clubs whose members are bound together by a common worldview comprising formal ritual practices and theological belief systems, a theologically justified moral system, and priestly hierarchies, combined with centralized bureaucracies that regulate both theological rectitude and good behaviour.

Of course, this is a continuum, and many religions have elements of both models. Consequently, despite the protests of many self-righteous monotheists, it is hard to find a religion entirely devoid of pre-monotheistic beliefs and practices. David Hume famously declared that in religion there is a flux and reflux, and “men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry.” Dunbar says something to similar effect:

new forms of religion don’t usually sweep away older forms, but rather are grafted onto them precisely because the older forms are so deeply engrained into people’s psyche that they are difficult to erase.

Dunbar writes in the final paragraph of his book:

it is difficult to see any convincing evidence for anything that will replace religion in human affairs. Religion is a deeply human trait. The content of religion will surely change over the longer term, but, for better or for worse, it is likely to remain with us.

I am not completely convinced that he is correct; perhaps Dunbar is simply lacking imagination, and John Lennon was not a fool when he imagined no religion. But if Dunbar is correct, then skeptics must come to terms with the idea that religion can only be tamed, but not eradicated. This acknowledgement allows for more efficient educational and debunking work amongst skeptics.

Likewise, skeptics must be on the watch for seemingly secular movements that ultimately, become religions themselves. Christopher Hitchens famously claimed that “religion poisons everything.” Sure enough, when one considers inquisitions, witch hunts, crusades, Jihadists, indexes of prohibited books, and much more, it is difficult not to agree with Hitchens. But what is the most dangerous ideology of our contemporary world? I say nationalism. In that ideology, there is no afterlife, no miracles, no supernatural stuff. But nationalism can be as irrational as any religious sect. In fact, one scholar has called nationalism “the god of modernity.” In the name of that god, tens of millions of people were killed in the 20th Century.

Dunbar’s book is a welcome scholarly contribution that allows us to better understand why religions arose in the first place, and why they persist. His insights should provide skeptics with the necessary conceptual tools to understand why people are so hesitant to renounce their cherished yet unfounded beliefs. From Lucian of Samosata to James Randi, skeptics and debunkers are most effective when they are persuasive. A fundamental principle of rhetoric is the need to know the audience, in order to better persuade them. Dunbar’s book provides a useful guide to understand religious people, and skeptics should take note.

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Robin Dunbar, the noted evolutionary psychologist, turns his attention to the role of spiritual thinking in his new book “How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures”
The post Robin Dunbar examines the possible evolutionary role of religious thinking appeared first on The Skeptic.