Evolution, Religion and Society

Recently I started to read the book “Natural Justice” by Ken Binmore, and in his introductory chapter he talks about the evolutionary basis for morality. For his part this is meant only as an introduction of sorts, and therefore the exposition is shortened and simplified, and so it would be unfair to criticise it too harshly for avoiding some issues. But, it did get me to think about some common presentations and arguments from evolution that I feel are too much of a simplification – especially if the goal is to make ethical and political claims based on human nature. I will in this article raise some general questions considering how one argues from and presents evolution, and in particular I will present important concerns about the focus on religious beliefs, that is beliefs containing deities or the divine, by certain atheistic groups.


An article with such a title as presented above should start with an admittance: I am by no means an evolutionary biologist, and I have no formal education in it. Therefore, I may use “wrong” terms for things that already have their own terms in the literature. However, while Ramanujan used his own notation that was different from everyone else’s, one cannot claim his mathematics were any less genius.

Why we are and what we are

Every organism is “programmed” to further its genes. Probably, everyone accepting evolution can agree on this point. A species which is not programmed to behave in a way that furthers itself will not get far. All agree that to be successful in the evolutionary sense is to be successful at passing on one’s genes. This is often used to explain our family behaviour – why we often willingly help the family at the expense of the self. When it comes to group behaviour on a larger scale, the reconciliation between the fact that we make personal sacrifices for the sake of others – the group – and the idea that our supreme goal by nature is to ensure the survival of one’s genes is done by a simplistic argument: We help others in the expectation that they will help us. Such an explanations leaves a lot unsaid.

Semantically, we know it is certainly not true that we help other in the expectation of receiving something: expectation is something conscious, and it often happens that we just feel like helping a person without giving a single thought to what we will get out of it. The explanation is probably true in the sense that we developed this unconscious “urge” to help others because it benefits the group and therefore the individuals in it – making them more likely to pass on their genes. However, this is not an explanation for why we help people – we do it not because of potential benefits we may receive in the future, but simply because on an unconscious mechanism, just as we pull our finger from the fire. The reason why we developed this mechanism on the other hand, can be explained as above.

Evolutionarily speaking it is impossible for a complex organism that does not have a built in desire or drive to stay alive to have evolved, and so our drive to survive is easily explained. Since we die without food, one can say that we eat in order to survive. But, truth be told, we eat simply because we want; because we are driven towards it. I do not doubt this mechanism evolved because it is a good solution to a fundamental necessity, but the fact remains that this is not why I, as an individual, eat.

Why we as individuals behave as we do and we as a species have evolved to behave in certain ways are two different questions that should not be mixed. I am sure most people caring to write about the subject understand this, but understanding and being conscious about are different things. Especially, one has to take care to make this distinction if one is to use human nature, and therefore evolution, as a way of arguing for a certain set of ethics. Then, what we are and not why we are is the important thing.

Rather than programming us to consider our survival all the time and therefore eat, it was probably a lot more efficient simply to program us to eat – without any further motivation behind. Regardless of its comparative efficiency, this is how it is. In todays abundance, it has some negative side-effects like obesity, but even if our environment changes, the programming remains – at least for some time. Likewise, it seems obvious that we have such a sexual drive to further our genes, but again a step was skipped: instead of being programmed to want babies all the time, we are programmed to perform an action which, at least before prevention, has babies as a consequence.

Think of it this way: I tell a friend to leave a note from me at a particular place. The note is to a girl, poetically telling my love for her, but – the messenger does not know the content or who it is for. The purpose of the delivery is that I may express my love for her, but this cannot possibly be why the messenger as an individual does it, as he has no knowledge of this. We are nothing but messengers.

Connection to ethics and society

Now, this is all well and good and no controversies here, and, you may wonder, why am I telling so many obvious things – and, how does it relate to ethics? Consider our sexual drive again. Simply saying that we have sex in order to get babies, the act will become pointless if we can solve the baby problem another way (which we have, by the way). However, this will not make the drive go away, and making social norms and laws that does not take this drive into account will not lead to good results.

Say I set my alarm to ring at 7:00 every day in order to get to work. The alarm simply knows to ring every day, and nothing else. If the purpose of ringing is no longer valid, say I lose my job or go on vacation, the alarm will still go off at 7:00 every day, until programmed otherwise.

Most will agree that society should not be designed to maximize every individuals possibilities of furthering his/her genes. Rather, we want fairness, justice, security, health, freedom enjoyment and pleasure – whatever meaning one attaches to these concepts. Maybe we want all these things because a consequence of it was that it helped further our genes, but even when it has different consequences, this is what we want.

Those who do not believe in any platonic or divine absolute good – in any morality that is permanent in time and for all humans, or dependent on something outside humanity – usually take the goal of ethics to be “well-being” of as many individuals as possible. Most atheists believing in evolution, which is a rapidly growing group, fall into this category. And, seeing what well-being for humans is as dependent on our nature, they will have to base their reasoning on what we are and not why we are: according to the why we have sex to pass on our genes, and thus it is not needed for well being if we can pass on our genes otherwise. According to the what, sex is equally important for our well-being with or without spreading our genes.

Dawkins and other authors like him spend a lot of effort on explaining how our disposition to religious beliefs is a result of mechanisms that we have evolved, each of which has/had their purpose. However, they insist that religion is merely a side-effect of these mechanisms, and a negative one at that. Like the mechanism telling us to eat (and what to eat) worked very well in hunter-gatherer societies with limited quantity and variety of resources, but causes many to harm themselves by how/what they eat today, religion is a negative effect of mechanisms that work well for other purposes/in other settings. At least, according to aforementioned author and many with him. Although their explanation of religion is debatable, we will not take that debate here.

I do not wish to place words in other’s mouths, and I have to admit that I am no expert on the writings of Dawkins and similar authors. The reason why I take them as examples here, is because I know how famous they are and how many people believe in their arguments and opinions. Having made this excuse, I can say that I have the impression that notwithstanding his critique of the consequences of religion in society, Dawkins’ theory that religion is simply a “misfire” of mechanisms gained by evolution lead him to think of religion as “bad”. In other words, he uses the why for his political and ethical beliefs, and not the what.

Why religion?

Now we turn to our religious mechanisms, whatever they may be, and, remembering our main topic, their impact on and relation to ethics and society.

It is not the involvement of supernatural beings – deities – that gives religious beliefs their social influence. It is the insistence on the truth of the belief, its exclusivity, and the inability to discuss objectively and inability to change one’s opinion. It is almost a cliché among atheists now, to say that they completely tolerate religious people who keep their religion to themselves and do not think that everyone must believe what they do. Now I must ask the question: is the mechanism of insisting on one’s beliefs, thereby excluding those with different beliefs, and the mechanism that makes us so desperately hold on to our beliefs strictly related with the mechanisms that makes us form religious beliefs? In other words, have these mechanisms evolved to kick in only when our belief includes some element that fits our abstract definition of religious?

We know this is not the case, which implies that the separation between religious belief and non-religious belief is artificial in terms of the relevant criteria for ethical and social considerations: impact on society.

It is in a sense worrisome that while we have moved so far in the direction of using psychology, biology and human nature as a basis of morality and politics, we still separate concepts by age-old, traditional and abstract criteria that has no relation to psychology, evolution and human nature. As a mathematician I cannot help but to use mathematics as an analogy: in mathematics, when one discovers some property of a function or a set, one always tries to find what are the essential features of it that makes it have this property – and strip away all else. This is the only way to find the full potential of a theorem and how one can use it. Similarly, one must identify the essential features of beliefs that are detrimental for society, and strip away all else.  Religious beliefs generally satisfy the essential criteria that are relevant, but there are non-religious beliefs that do as well. It is not the “religion” part that is essential.

Essential questions and considerations

Now we arrive at some questions and, if we allow ourselves to be brave, conclusions. First the latter: seeing as the detrimental sides of religious belief is not strictly connected to the supernatural elements of it – that is, connected to what makes it a religious belief, trying “combat” religion as a belief directly is not the way to go about it. Rather, one has to find a way to avoid the mechanisms that lead us to being so strongly attached to our beliefs ruling our opinions on important matters like ethics and politics.

This leads us directly to the question: can this be done, and should it be done? First we must admit to ourselves that regardless of why we have these mechanisms, we do have them, and we cannot merely decide not to be affected by them. Teens in USA who take a virginity pledge and wear chastity rings have more anal and oral sex than other teens. In other words, simply deciding to not follow one’s sexual drive without further ado does not work. Also with the drive to eat, denying it requires tremendous effort and psychological tricks, or simply mental illness (anorexia). Evolutionarily it would not make sense to evolve in such a way that it is easy for us to deny our programming, since we are programmed in this way to pass on our genes. If we could easily chose not to – humanity would not last long. It does not make any sense, evolutionarily speaking, to assume that we have strong conscious control of our lives and our goals, simply because there is no rational reason why I as an individual would want to pass on my genes.

Let me repeat this important point: It does not make sense, evolutionarily speaking, to think that we are rational beings, ruled by our consciousness. It is a necessity that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to deny our programming – our mechanisms. Certainly we have developed consciousness for a reason and it does serve a purpose, so appealing to it is not futile. But, by the mere function of the mechanism that attaches us to our beliefs, appealing to reason cannot achieve much.

We should even consider the possibility that this mechanism evolved for the purpose of denying the consciousness. This is beneficial for society and for passing on genes. One cannot rationally argue for why one should pass on one’s genes, and therefore it seems plausible, although I will not state it as a definite claim here, that we have a mechanism that denies our consciousness from shaking at beliefs that are good for passing on our genes.

 “Pass on our genes” – how?

Here I will make an important point, that deserves its own section: We have to consider how evolution can maximize an organism’s fitness to pass on its genes. For the purpose of passing on one’s genes, it is clear that defending one’s family is beneficial. How does one program this? My sister carries my genes, but I am not born with the knowledge that she is my sister. If the goal is to get me to defend her, this must be based on a bond between me and her formed after my birth. I must then be programmed to form such a bond. Never can I really gain the knowledge that she has my genes, nor do any creature by nature have any concept of genes, so the foundation of the bond cannot be based directly on genes. In some animals, it may be smell, but then the bond will be formed with any individual having this smell, regardless of relation. With humans it can be, for instance, simply that we form bond to people we grow up with, but this does not discriminate between biological sister or adopted sister, or perhaps even neighbour depending on the social structure of society.

You have probably seen pictures of cats or dogs who act as parents for chickens. For the sake of passing on genes, this does not make sense. Considering that they need to be programmed to form a relationship with their offspring, however, such behaviour does not seem strange. It can simply be that the way they form bond with their offspring can make them form bond with others, if the right conditions apply.

I made a small suggestion about the potential function of the mechanism that attaches us to beliefs, and in a future article I will argue that such a function really is, in certain areas, a necessity for humans; for now one can read “Social Mythology”. Leaving that discussion for later and assuming it really is beneficial, if not necessary, in certain areas, we have to think about how we can be programmed to recognize these areas. The programming that leads us to form a bond to our family can equally well lead us to form similar bonds with people that does not share our genes, simply because it is impossible for it to be based on genes since it cannot gain this information. Similarly, the mechanism of belief can apply in cases which do not serve the original purpose of it, because the information needed in order to know if it achieves the goal cannot be held by the unconscious mechanism. Nor can it really have a goal – it is not conscious.

The mechanism that tells us to eat does not know why it exists, and so it will still work even when eating does not serve the purpose of the mechanism. Purpose here refers to why it evolved.


What determines the criteria for well-being? The mechanisms evolution has endowed us with. Feeling well-being is in itself a mechanism – we always try to achieve well-being, and this mechanism likely evolved in order to make us live in a certain way, that in some sense helped passing on our genes. Regardless of whether it helped for this purpose, we nonetheless have it. Regardless of the actual function of having strong beliefs that one cannot question, one can only feel well living according to these beliefs. This further strengthens the claim that this mechanism is also meant as a motivator for certain behaviour, but I cannot stress it clearly enough: we are what we are, no matter how beneficial it is for us or how it came to be.


Considering that we have to live by our beliefs to feel well-being and that we have a mechanism that leads to holding beliefs in a way that is detrimental for society, we have to find a way of reconciling avoiding this mechanism while achieving well-being. For the war against religion to have any purpose, this problem has to be convincingly solved – and it may be that one discovers that the current state of the war against religion does not serve its intended purpose. Before the problem be convincingly solved, it must be honestly considered.


2 thoughts on “Evolution, Religion and Society

  1. Pingback: The Highest Payoff | Interactive philosophy

  2. Pingback: Do not Imagine All the People… | Interactive philosophy

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