How Religion Evolved – The Story of Human Belief by Robin Dunbar


Later this year, the results of the 2021 UK Census will be released. While 77% of people said they belonged to a religion in 2001 and 68% in 2011, this time around half of us are expected to be religious.

Religion has been on the wane for centuries. Much of Western Europe reports similar levels of religiosity as Britain, and now even the United States appears to be losing faith, with almost a third of Americans “without religious affiliation”. Finally, the predictions may well come true.

Except it doesn’t look like that in the rest of the world. Globally, religious commitment has never been so popular and is getting stronger. According to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of people unaffiliated with a religion will decrease over the next 30 years and the overwhelming majority of the world (about 87%) will be religious.

Moreover, even in the abnormally secular West, transcendent beliefs remain prevalent, spiritual practices proliferate, and non-religious groups offer services and ceremonies that look, to the untrained eye, like organized faith. The more religion dies, the more it seems to remain alive.

This is one of the underlying messages of How Religion Evolved by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist best known for his work on friendship. “There is no known culture,” he begins, “that does not have some form of religion.” Religions, or rather the drives that drive them, are deeply embedded in human nature, visible in everything from Paleolithic grave goods to New Age sects. These desires are varied but two stand out.

The first is our need to bond. Humans are very social animals, but there are ceilings above which the usual means of bonding with primates cannot go. There isn’t much time in a day to groom. In the absence of such mechanisms, our ancestors developed certain common practices – singing, dancing, eating, storytelling – which, when practiced ritually or in synchrony, have the same binding effect.

Although many evolutionary biologists argue that religion is an unintended consequence of evolution, Dunbar is clear that religious practices enhance the “fitness” of the individual. “[A]Active involvement in religion both makes you happier and provides you with a level of support that helps you cope. Indeed, one of the origins (and drivers) of religion is its ability to keep us healthy and together.

The second key impulse takes us beyond this “functional” role. Humans are predisposed to the transcendent. What Dunbar calls the “mystical stance” is widespread, of ancient origin, and “part of what it is to be human.” Whether through trance states in early “shamanic” religions or less dramatic but still touching encounters with music, art or nature, the sense of being part of something deeper and deeper than ourselves is almost universal.

None of this means that such feelings are necessarily true. Dunbar is clear that claims of doctrinal truth, such as the nature of God or creation, have played a relatively minor and recent role in the evolution of religion. Rather, it is simply that the belief in a spiritual realm or in a human purpose or destiny is very deeply embedded in our nature.

If all this sounds like an apology for religion, it is not. Dunbar is clear that the same religious impulses that drive prosocial behavior within the group can also drive antisocial behavior outside – the more I bond with my co-religionists, the less I have in common with those of other faiths. And when religious identity is co-opted by the state, the results can be disastrous.

Dunbar’s intellectual interests are wide-ranging, and he’s as safe to talk about human cognition as he is about the size of congregations. Very occasionally he drops the ball. It was Thomas Huxley, not his grandson Aldous, who called Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity “Catholicism less Christianity”. It is far from clear that the Anglo-Saxons operated “a ferocious form of apartheid.” . . against the Romano-British natives”. And there are many Church of England vicars who will be surprised to learn that “the full spectrum” of Christian services runs “from Evangelical to Anglican”.

These are minor criticisms, however. Globally, How Religion Evolved is learned, readable and fast (in the best sense of that word). His conclusion – that religion is a deeply human trait and that “it is difficult to see convincing evidence of anything that will replace [it] in human affairs” – is hard to argue, whatever the census says.

How religion evolved: And why does it last by Robin Dunbar Pelican, £22, 352 pages

Nick Spencer is the host of the “Reading Our Times” podcast

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