The Evolution of Religion

“How then did humans successfully develop much larger concentrations of population? How did they create cities and civilisation? Reciprocal altruism creates trust between neighbours, people who meet repeatedly and know about one another’s character. The birth of the city posed a different and much greater problem: how do you establish trust between strangers? This was the point at which culture took over from nature, and religion was born – that is, religion in the sense of an organised social structure with myths, rituals, sacred times and places, temples and a priesthood. Recall that we are speaking in evolutionary, not theological terms. Regardless of whether we regard religion as true or false, it clearly has adaptive value because it appeared at the dawn of civilisation and has been a central feature of almost every society since.”

“The early religions created moral communities, thus solving the problem of trust between strangers. They sanctified the social order. They taught people that society is as it is because this is the will of the gods and the basic structure of the universe. The fundamental theme of the early religions in Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tension between cosmos and chaos, order and anarchy, structure and disarray. The universe began in chaos, a formless ocean or unformed matter, and if the rules are not followed, it will become chaos again. Later, the monotheisms found moral order in Divine wisdom, the Divine will or the Divine word. One way or another, though, there was an order that, if not adhered to, would bring disaster. Thus a moral community was created on a far larger scale than could have been achieved on the basis of kinship or reciprocal altruisms. The world religions have in fact created some of the largest moral communities ever known, though they are always at risk of internal fracture through schism and sectarianism. There is no biological mechanism capable of yielding order on such a scale…”

“Humans are different from one another. That is what makes cooperation between them so difficult, and so powerful when it happens. This is when something new and distinctively human emerges. Learned habits of behaviour take over from evolved instinctual drives. Rituals make their appearance. Socialisation becomes a fundamental part of the education of the young. There are roles, rules, codes of conduct. The habits necessary to the maintenance of the group become internalised. We are the culture-creating, meaning-seeking animal. Homo sapiens became Homo religiosus.”

Morality, Chapter 19, p. 269