IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Is Religion a Parasitic Meme or a Helpful Adaptation?

Moai at Easter Island. Moai are the living faces of deified ancestors. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Parasitic meme or helpful adaptation?

That humans are religious is indisputable. Like morality, religion in one form or another seems to be a universal aspect of human culture.

By Bill Meacham | The Rag Blog | October 30, 2012

It can be a bit daunting to draw philosophical conclusions from the state of scientific belief. Scientific theories change with the addition of new evidence. Different theorists sometimes disagree, and the informed but non-expert onlooker does not know which to take as grounds for philosophizing.

And the issue is particularly vexing in the social sciences, which do not lend themselves as easily as the physical sciences to experimental verification. Case in point: the evolutionary origins of religion.

That humans are religious is indisputable. Like morality, religion in one form or another seems to be a universal aspect of human culture.

By “religion” I mean any form of socially-organized relationship to what we might call an unseen realm of disembodied agency, including ancestors who are no longer living in the flesh; totemic spirits associated with places or objects; genies, angels and demons; deities such as the gods of the Greek pantheon; the all-knowing, all-powerful and eternal God of monotheism; and the All or Universal Soul of advanced mysticism.(1)

An intimate social relationship between living people and supernatural beings of some sort is characteristic of human societies everywhere.(2) The question for evolutionary psychology is twofold: how did religion come to be and what advantages did it provide to our ancestors?

The advantages seem straightforward. One aspect of religion is social cohesion; it “served as an extra cohesive force, besides the bonds of kinship, to hold societies together for such purposes as punishing freeloaders and miscreants or uniting in war.”(3)

Evolutionary theorists are divided on the historical causes of this effect. Does the explanation require the controversial notion of group selection, that genes can become fixed or spread in a population because of the benefits they bestow on groups, regardless of their effect on the fitness of individuals within that group?(4) Or is it instead merely that all humans benefit by being members of groups, and exhibit genetic or cultural traits that have evolved to enhance the ability to function well in a group, any group?

In either case religion, like language and sensitivity to norms, may well be one such adaptation.

Another advantage is a sense of hope or confidence in the face of adverse circumstances. When confronted with danger or something fearsome, the believer does not succumb to despair and hopelessness. (Those who did, who gave up, did not survive to produce offspring.) Instead he or she calls on God — or the ancestors or the gods or guardian spirits, etc. — for help.

As a person feels that help, he or she carries on and is more likely to survive and thrive. (This is the case regardless of whether the entity called on actually exists or not.) It is a survival characteristic to feel that God is with you.

But how did this characteristic evolve in the first place? We can only speculate, as there is little archeological evidence.

The so-called “New Atheists” — those who invoke science to denigrate religion with much the same fervor as some believers defend their faith — view religious beliefs not as useful adaptations, but as parasitic memes that have embedded themselves in human minds. (A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that replicates from person to person within a culture much like genes replicate from generation to generation of living organisms.[5]) Such beliefs started out as mistakes but then took on a life of their own, they say.

Daniel Dennett, one such atheist, believes it had to do with an extension of our species’ aptitude for theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states like our own to others. Humans have such an advanced capacity for what he calls the “intentional stance,” the propensity to attribute beliefs, desires, and a certain amount of cunning to anything that moves and seems to do so with intention, that we have difficulty turning it off.(6)

Citing other researchers, Dennett calls it a “hyperactive agency detection device,” a term that is widely used to mean a cognitive module that readily — perhaps too readily — ascribes events in the environment to the behavior of agents. Such a tendency confers a survival benefit: it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one.(7) We are the descendents of those whose agency detectors were overly, not insufficiently, vigilant.

Dennett’s argument, in brief is this:

  • When a person died, our ancestors got rid of the body, but had the persistent memory of the living person, so they thought of him or her as still existing as a ghost or spirit.(8) That is the hyperactive agency detector at work.
  • Then they started asking the deceased or the spirits for advice.(9)
  • From there it is short step to divination — ceremonies and rituals to find out what the gods know — and then to appeasement and prayer, to try to influence the gods to be good to us. At this point humans were treating the gods not just as disembodied beings who know things, but as agents who do things, who cause things to happen to us, both calamities and good fortune.(10)
  • Finally we get self-serving shamans and priests who promote belief in their authority as ways to enhance their own self-esteem, power, and wealth.(11)

Once religion is born, other mechanisms ensure its propagation. One is the natural tendency of people to believe what others in the group believe. Science writer Robert Wright observes, “If you are surrounded by a small group of people on whom your survival depends, rejecting the beliefs that are most important to them will not help you live long enough to get your genes into the next generation.”(12)

Another thing that helps is that the very idea of gods or a God is catchy. As Wright puts it,

[W]e would expect the following kinds of memes to be survivors in the dog-eat-dog world of cultural evolution: claims that (a) are somewhat strange, surprising, counterintuitive; (b) illuminate sources of fortune and misfortune; (c) give people a sense that they can influence these sources; (d) are by their nature hard to test decisively. In this light, the birth of religion doesn’t seem so mysterious.(13)

Memetic replication can, paradoxically, favor ideas that are hard to confirm. Truth-value is not the only attribute that causes memes to jump from mind to mind. Ideas that contribute to group cohesion, of course, tend to be reinforced within the group. And finally we get full-blown rationales such as that belief in God is the foundation of morality and in any case is important for its own sake.(14)

On this view, particularly in light of the sorry history of much of organized religion, religion and religious beliefs are outmoded and dangerous residues of our evolutionary heritage. If they ever did serve a useful purpose, that purpose has long been superseded, say the New Atheists. At best, God is a social hallucination or, to put it more kindly, something constituted intersubjectively. Belief in God is as mistaken as the belief in an external, objective morality.

But there is another view, equally steeped in evolutionary psychology, that says that religion has positive benefits.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his intellectually superb The Righteous Mind, claims that religion has been evolutionarily adaptive because it binds groups together in a way that enhances the survival prospects of their members. He observes that despite our innate tendency to favor ourselves human beings are able at times to be quite unselfish in service to the group or groups of which they are a member. We are not only selfish, we are also groupish:

We love to join teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork. … Our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interest in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.(15)

He attributes this trait to group competition.

[G]roups compete with groups, and that competition favors groups composed of team players — those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving.(16)

He goes on to give a number of reasons for believing that the tendency to be a team player is not only cultural but has become a physical, genetic trait. This is a group selection theory: some groups fare better than others in the competition to turn resources into offspring(17) and members of those groups come to have specific genetic traits that help the group survive, traits such as a tendency to be loyal to the group and feelings of sanctity for the things others in the group value. “[G]roups in which these traits are common will replace groups in which they are rare, even if those genes impose a small cost on their bearers (relative to those that lack them within each group).”(18)

Can group membership really influence the genetic makeup of its members? Consider this (one among several arguments that Haidt advances): If you want to increase egg output, you would breed only those chickens that lay the most eggs, right? Actually that doesn’t work. In the egg industry, where chickens live in crowded cages, the best layers are also the most aggressive, and breeding such hens causes more aggression and fewer eggs. A geneticist tried a different approach:

He worked with cages containing 12 hens each, and he simply picked the cages that produced the most eggs in each generation. The he bred all of the hens in those cages to produce the next generation. Within just three generations, aggression levels plummeted. … Total eggs produced per hen jumped from 91 to 237 [after several more generations], mostly because the hens started living longer, but also because they laid more eggs per day. The group-selected hens were more productive than were those subjected to individual-level selection.(19)

Haidt claims humans have become adapted to group living in much the same way. Natural, not artificial, selection has caused us to be groupish as well as selfish. As Haidt puts it, we are 90 percent ape and 10 percent bee.(20)

I am not going to adjudicate whether this phenomenon would better be called group selection, multi-level selection, or “individual selection in the context of groups.”(21) But it is undeniable that humans function best in groups and it does seem plausible that natural selection has produced specific adaptations in us to serve that end. One of them is the propensity to submerge self-interest in favor of service to the group. Dennett, in fact, recognizes the same phenomenon, but chalks it up to cultural evolution — memes, not genes.(22)

What Haidt adds to the debate is the recognition that it is not just our behavior that inclines us to service to the group; it is our experience as well. It can be quite agreeable to lose our sense of individuality in a feeling of unity with something larger than ourselves. He gives a number of examples: the sense of well-being felt by soldiers when drilling in close order; the ecstasy of collective dancing; awe in nature; the effect of certain hallucinogenic drugs; and more.(23)

He does not mention the rhythmic movements and breath practices of the Sufis, the chanting and hand-clapping of Hindu bhajan and kirtan (devotional singing and dancing), nor the similar enthusiasm of certain evangelical Christians, but they certainly qualify as well. From the point of view of the phenomenology of lived experience, it seems that we thrive on ecstasy.

Haidt calls this experience being in a sort of hive mind, “a mind-set of ‘one for all, all for one’” in which we are willing to work for the good of the group as a whole, not solely for our own advancement within it.(24) Just as evolution has caused sweets to taste good to us, it has caused the experience of being in harmony with others, of moving in unison and sensing that we are part of a larger whole, to be profoundly satisfying.

And religion is one of the ways we do that. This version of the story of the rise of religion starts in the same place as that of the New Atheists: our hyperactive agency detection device gave rise to belief in disembodied ancestors, spirits, gods, and the like. But far from being memetic parasites, such beliefs served a positive benefit: the cohesion of the group. The gods condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, and the gods can see what you are doing.

It is a fact verified by experiment that people act more ethically when they think somebody is looking and less ethically when they think nobody can see them. “Creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath-breakers, turns out to be a very good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking.”(25) And if those gods are said to punish the group for its members’ infractions, then people in the group will be more vigilant towards and gossipy about each other’s behavior. “Angry gods make shame more effective as a means of social control.”(26)

The upshot is this:

[T]he very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.(27) … Gods and religions … are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.(28)

And there is evidence that religious people are more kind, generous, and charitable than non-religious people. This is true regardless of the specifics of the theology. What really matters is how enmeshed people are in relationships with their fellow religionists. It is religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.(29)

The New Atheists have it wrong; certainly many religious beliefs are irrational, but that is not the point. The point is that religious belonging, regardless of belief, triggers altruism, although it is often a parochial altruism, aimed at members of the in-group.(30)

Does this mean that religion is a good thing, and we should embrace it? Well, no, not necessarily. We need to be choosy. Evolution has equipped us with a desire for and a response to being subsumed in something greater than our individual selves. But that instinct can be triggered by all sorts of things: football games, social clubs, political movements, religious congregations, and more.

The yearning to be absorbed in the hive can be exploited by a fascist rally as well as evoked by a mystical dance. Devotion to the in-group can be seen in a mafia gang as well as a Quaker meeting. Given that we have an innate predilection to lose ourselves in something greater, it is up to us to decide where to place our allegiance.

There is no question that hideous things have been done in the name of religion: the slaughter of infidels; the abuse of children and women; lies, deceit, and hypocrisy; arrogant exercise of domineering power. And there is no question that many beautiful and noble things have been done in the name of religion: feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; housing the homeless; comforting the afflicted; standing up for the oppressed against the abuses of the dominators. If you feel drawn to religion, you get to choose which it will be.

As Bob Dylan says, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.(31) Will it be the monolith of a fascist state or the community of the faithful? Will it be the rigidity of a top-down institution or the living flexibility of a decentralized organism?

Best of all would be the fellowship of those committed to working for the good in all things.

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin’s ’60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

(1) Buddhism and Taoism, arguably non-theistic religions, nevertheless stress the importance of something nonphysical that influences human affairs, which can be understood as an attenuated form of more-than-human agency.
(2) King, Evolving God, p. 13.
(3) Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 72-73.
(4) Wikipedia, “Group selection,”
(5) Wikipedia, “Meme.”
(6) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 108-112.
(7) Wikipedia, “Evolutionary psychology of religion.”
(8) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 112-113.
(9) Ibid., pp. 125-131.
(10) Ibid., pp. 132-135.
(11) Ibid., pp. 167-173.
(12) Wright, The Evolution of God, p. 464.
(13) Ibid., p. 468.
(14) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, chapters six through eight, pp. 153-246.
(15) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 190-191.
(16) Ibid., pp. 191-192.
(17) Ibid., p. 217.
(18) Ibid., p. 195.
(19) Ibid., p. 214.
(20) Ibid., p. 220.
(21) Pinker, “The False Allure Of Group Selection.”
(22) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 184.
(23) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 221-233.
(24) Ibid., p. 223.
(25) Ibid., p. 256.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid., p. 257.
(28) Ibid., p. 264.
(29) Ibid., p. 267.
(30) Ibid., p. 265.
(31) Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Dylan, Bob. “Gotta Serve Somebody” on Slow Train Coming. New York: Columbia Records, 1979. Lyrics available at as of 5 October 2012.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
King, Barbara J. Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Pinker, Steven. “The False Allure Of Group Selection.” Online publication, URL = as of 19 September 2012.
Wade, Nicholas. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.
Wikipedia. “Evolutionary psychology of religion.” Online publication, URL = as of 21 October 2012.
Wikipedia. “Group selection.” Online publication, URL = as of 6 December 2009.
Wikipedia. “Meme.” Online publication, URL = as of 21 October 2012.
Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. The appendix, “How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion,” is also available as an online publication, URL = as of 20 August 2009.

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Is Religion a Parasitic Meme or a Helpful Adaptation?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent article, should be passed along to cleric & atheist alike

  2. This would be why, although I'm not a monotheist, I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and a reform Jewish congregation, neither of which cares what I personally believe….but with which I share values that we express in the secular world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *