Posted by: Dan | August 3, 2007

Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive?

A couple months ago I noted a class that Allen MacNeill was preparing to teach during summer session here at Cornell, titled Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?. More specifically, it sought to address the question “Is the Capacity for Religious Experience Adaptive” in a seminar format, with readings of Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, David Sloan Wilson, Newberg and D’Aquili, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Personally, I found Atran and Boyer to be the most thorough and on-target of the bunch, but maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, the 6-week course has ended. I didn’t have to (since I was just sitting in, not taking the course for credit), but I wrote a short paper for the end of the course myself. That paper (.doc) will be below the fold:

Religion and Ethnocentrism: Social Selection of, and within, Religions

A cursory glance at the origins of human society includes the observation that religion, or at least the capacity for religion, has evolved from earlier propensities. It appears to many that the capacity for religion can be neurologically described as arising from a “loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain.” It has also been observed that religiousness is a nearly universal phenomenon amongst humans, to some degree or another, and the degree of this religiousness varies widely, from passive acceptance of their various societal norms to radically sociopathic and self-destructive behavioral patterns. This scenario – the fixation of a species characteristic from pre-existing propensities, displaying a normal distribution in the population – strongly suggests that this capacity has been (and may be still) selected for within that population.

Many explanations have been proposed over the years to explain the prevalence of religions in human societies, centering over the uncertain possibility that the capacity for religiosity is adaptive. Among these are the possibilities of (1) religion is a group-level adaptation, reinforcing social cohesion; (2) religion is an individual-level adaptation, directing human behavior; or (3) religion as a cultural “parasite” that often evolves at the expense of human individuals and groups (Wilson, 2002, p.45). While some combination of those three is also a possibility, and indeed more likely, all of these possibilities require a more rigorous explanation of the mechanisms by which religion may have positively impacted adaptive fitness. How might that have occurred?

Birth of Religion in Tribalism

By making possible the belief that a supernatural entity knows the outcome of all actions and can influence such outcomes, that one’s “self” (i.e. “soul”) is not tied to one’s physical body, and that if one is killed in battle, one’s essential self (i.e. soul) will go to a better “place” (e.g. Heaven, Valhalla, etc.) the capacity for religious experience can tip the balance toward participation in warfare. By doing so, the capacity for religious belief not only makes it possible for individuals to do what they might not otherwise be motivated to do, it also tends to tip the balance toward victory on the part of the religiously devout participant. This is because success in battle, and success in war, hinges on commitment: the more committed a military force is in battle, the more likely it is to win, all other things being equal. [MacNeill, 2006]

In early human cultures, this connection between religion and warfare probably was manifested as tribalism, which served for the individual as a cultural or ethnic identifier. Tribalism is today treated synonymously with the term ethnocentrism. Indeed, many tribes refer to themselves with their language’s word for “people,” while referring to other, neighboring tribes with various epithets. For example, the term “Inuit” translates as “people,” but they were known to the Ojibwe by a name translating roughly as “eaters of raw meat.” This fact is often cited as evidence that tribal peoples saw only the members of their own tribe as “people,” and denigrated all others as something less. In fact, this is a tenuous conclusion to draw from the evidence. Many languages refined their identification as “the true people,” or “the real people,” suggesting that there were other people, who were simply inferior. In this, it is merely evidence of ethnocentrism, a universal cultural characteristic found in all societies.

The term “tribalism” taken in the sense of societal structure usually carries a connotation that society is not only divided into smaller groups, but that these groups are actively hostile towards one another. Thus, “tribalism” as a social structure connotes a society divided in civil conflict between myriad small groups. The anthropological debate on warfare among tribes is unsettled. While certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains whether such warfare is a typical feature of tribal life, or an anomaly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit) or among food producing societies. There is also ambiguous evidence whether the level of violence among tribal societies is greater or lesser than the levels of violence among civilized societies. Tribalism as a sense of identity, on the other hand, can clearly play a strong role in motivation for aggressive wars, and this is another reason to draw a distinction between the two definitions of the word.

The result is that tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray (Salter, 2002). This keeps individuals from wandering off. Thus, ethnocentric individuals would have a higher survival rate — or at least, with their higher commitment to the group, more opportunities to breed. Further, The tendency of members to unite against an outside tribe and the ability to act violently and prejudicially against that outside tribe likely boosted the chances of survival in genocidal conflicts. Logically, a distinct divide between ones own group (in-group) and other groups (out-group) fosters the ability of the individual to interact with members of those groups in a manner that is equally distinct: one being altruistic or selective for kin (or fictive kin), the other being violent (Christie, 1998; Kelly, 2000).

Adolescence of Religion in Civilization

As MacNeill (2006) writes, religion “supports and facilitates the participation of group members in tribal conflicts” quite well. Indeed, one might call modern nationalism a revival of prehistoric tribalism – the parallels are remarkable (just substitute nationalism for tribalism in the passages above, for instance). But while primitive religions and tribes were essentially synonymous, modern religions are most definitely not synonymous with their national identities, even though they may use similar social hierarchies and motives. It is likely that one of the major changes in the social environment (i.e. culture) was the invention of agriculture, enabling larger groups to cohabitate in the first cities, where civilization could develop. Tribes became nations, and communal living was replaced with separate family units that cooperate and interact to lesser degrees. Religion, however, remained a group activity of the locality, with the construction of usually elaborate community buildings and structures for places of worship. It further adapted to accommodate the ownership of land, hierarchies of authority in larger cities and states, and more formal behavioral prescriptions. And both civilization and religion have been spread by invasion, conversion and trade, which stood to profit from the previously existing psychology of tribal warfare described above. Indoctrination or conquering of rival cities and states, in particular, both reinforced and benefited from concepts attributed to religious fervor. And civilizations have often used religion to justify their action, claiming for example that the uncivilized are primitives, savages, barbarians or the like, which should be subjugated by civilization. As with the case of tribal warfare, warfare between these rival city-states created a social environment in which the capacity for religion was highly adaptive, at least for those city-states which reign victorious.

Jared Diamond adds to this connection between religion, warfare and civilization in Guns, Germs and Steel, by detailing the rise of doctrinal religions in lower Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, complete with increasingly stratified authoritarian hierarchies and state-level literate societies. Diamond takes his description to the slightly cynical degree of describing the Sumerian civilization as a kleptocracy, in which the citizenry were essentially taken advantage of (p. 277). That the religious leaders would have gained in wealth and political control as a result of institutionalizing religion is beyond doubt, but the value of large-group social cohesion, as for state religions in states or nations, should not be underestimated (Durkheim, 1912, p. 44). Afterall, the assured inclusion of a devout member in the society can be a powerful insurance policy in an uncertain world, and particularly in times of great misfortune (e.g. famines, epidemics, wars, and natural disasters). Scott Atran elaborates by generally characterizing the function of religion: “Emotionally-motivated self-sacrifice to the supernatural stabilizes in-group moral order, inspiring competition with out-groups” (p. 268).

Religious devotion can further be described as “costly, hard-to-fake commitments.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is most broadly exemplified by the myth of Abraham, who was commanded by his god to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Despite the costliness of such an act (i.e. killing one’s own son), or perhaps because of it, others in Abraham’s community presumably saw that he was prepared to put the interests of his god above that of his own prosperity (Atran, 2002, p.145). This act solidified his social inclusion in an act of self-sacrifice, where other members of the community become motivated to indirectly reward him later should he need it, and elevate his social standing (i.e. by reciprocal altruism; see also fictive kin). The beauty of the Abraham myth is that he got to have his cake and eat it too – Abraham did not ultimately have to go through with the act. The same can be said for any member of the group during times of social stress (e.g. war, or death in general), when individuals often invoke supernatural entities for both guidance and salvation in the face of their eminent deaths.

And interestingly, in large city-state societies we see the codification of religious prescriptions and mythologies, committed to text as inscrutable foundations for their societies. It is probably no mistake that the first languages coincided with the origins of agriculture and civilization in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley, where state religions and authoritarian hierarchies may have first begun to form. The same is true of architecture, which arose first and foremost to enable the elaborate constructions important to religions (e.g. the Egyptian pyramids). Such texts (and perhaps constructions) likely facilitated the spread of city-state religions through trade and indoctrination, at least for the literate religious authorities to use as reference material.

It seems at least plausible that the inventions of agriculture, cities, politics, literacy, etc., contributed to the institutionalization of religion, establishing a social structure recognizable to us today. All of these developments influenced the sociopolitical environment – or to use Atran’s description, the evolutionary landscape – which could have selected for the adoption of newer religious systems over old ones. Related changes in religion may include the shift from animism to polytheism, along with revised ways of representing deities, passing along mimetic concepts, and otherwise effect human behavior in new ways. This is explicitly a group selectionist argument that I make here for religion, and while group selection has been derided by various evolutionary biologists since the mid-1960’s (Williams, 1966), the principles of kin and fictive kin selection have been shown to be mathematically scalable to selection at the group level (Hamilton, 1975).

Importantly, selection can act simultaneously on the individual and the group, and decisions of both the individual and its group influence the evolutionary landscape – and therefore the selection – of the other. Only religions that serve the interests of both the individual and the group, at least when it counts (i.e. during times of social stress), will therefore be selectively retained. Generally, however, religions are social entities, and while the capacity for religious experience may be an individual trait, religions themselves can only be understood at the level of the group. So in the next section, I will discuss the competition and selection of competing religious concepts, but let me first restate the individual’s situation clearly: that whatever the counterintuitive or counterfactual nature of religious beliefs, it seems likely that such beliefs are adaptive to the individual within a religious group, all else being equal. And it’s clear why – for the entirety of the genus Homo, and before it along the primate lineage, the costs for not fitting in with the social unit were tremendous (e.g. exclusion or death).

Selection of Societies and Religions

While it is difficult to apply this group selectionist view to all religions since the invention of agriculture (inadequate records, unfamiliarity with Eastern religions, etc.), I regrettably will confine the discussion to the ancient Roman Empire, and the evolution of Judaism to Christianity at around the same time period. I say regrettably, because this sole example creates just what others have done before – another just-so story. As a result, the remainder of this paper will be venturing deeper into the realm of speculation, plausible though it may be.

Having said that, the example of ancient Rome is extremely relevant, involving a highly successful society caught in the middle of significant political, economic, religious, philosophical and technological innovations that we have largely retained to this day. As I’ve said more generally, the religion at the time surely did not cause the success of Roman expansion, nor did it cause the other changes, but it is probably no mistake that they all happened in concert. And in the case of religion, the polytheistic system of the Roman pantheon appears to have served to assimilate conquered cultures, at least from the group perspective. This is apparent because of how the Romans treated gods of the regions that they defeated: usually by bringing them into the pantheon to be adopted as a Roman god, resulting in a unification of supernatural entities to worship, under the primary god of Rome itself (i.e. Jupiter) (Turcan, 1997). This was possible because of the common use of idols to represent gods up until this time, which enabled a symbolic (or in some cases, literal) absorption of those gods into the pantheon.

The most notable example of a religion during the Roman era which resisted assimilation into the pantheon was that of the Jews, perhaps precisely because their religion forbid idolatry. Of course the survival of their religion intact resulted in their persecution after being conquered, such that being a member of that faith was decidedly non-adaptive, at least for a time. The religion itself, however, did survive independent of the pantheon, where others did not. Significantly, the devotion of this religion’s members probably was strengthened as a result of the persecution, not weakened – not because of the characteristics of Judaism but because stress (e.g. persecution) reinforces the strongly-held emotions that religion feeds off of. Christianity followed this same path, with the exception that it spread more quickly, and was later adopted in the early 4th century as the state religion of Rome upon Constantine’s conversion.

It is also notable that the switch from the old paganism to Christianity involved the retention of successful pagan concepts, including the mechanism of the pantheon: but instead of a house of worship devoted to gods, they became devoted to saints. As such, the capacity for focusing on separate representations within the religions was retained, but still united under a single figurehead. Merged with the political, economic, and technological prowess of the Roman empire, Christianity then became the dominant religion in the Western world by far. It succeeded so much that it diversified into a vast number of sects and denominations, not to mention evolving again into Islam.

Importantly, all of these religions retained the role of ethnocentric identifiers, as well as the incorporation of “costly hard-to-fake commitments,” doctrines, authoritarian hierarchies, and other characteristics having their roots in tribalism and nationalism. And when these concepts are broken down (ethnocentric identifiers, in particular), the consequences appear to eventually be further succession of new forms of religion.

In summary of religion and group selection:

  1. Groups compete with other groups
  2. Within groups, it is in individuals’ best interests to fit into their groups’ social structures
  3. It is in groups’ best interests to motivate its individuals in certain ways
  4. Groups that have motivated members, and successful interactions with competing groups succeed, and we call the ways that this occurs religion, for lack of a better term

Epilogue: What is Religion Evolving Into?

Since the expansion of the Judeo-Christian model of monotheism, not much changed for a while, until notable a shift towards secularization. Atran dates the beginning of secularization of Europe effectively to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which wound down the horrendously long and violent religious conflict known as the Thirty Years War (p. 275). Coinciding with peaceful settlement during the Renaissance were trends towards tolerance (and away from ethnocentric exclusion of other groups), literacy (following the invention of the printing press), secular Rule of Law (ever since the Magna Carta), and science (especially by the Enlightenment). Generally speaking, we began to interact, communicate, and trade with other ethnicities more and more, reducing the role for religion at the level of survival.

While our out-group prejudices are still alive and well (e.g. racial, religious, etc.), they are today less than ever before in history. As a consequence, we no longer need to make costly, hard-to-fake demonstrations of commitment to receive the benefits of social inclusion – we now have “inalienable human rights,” to quote the Declaration of Independence. Nor do we need to appeal to “full-access strategic agents” (Boyer, p.165) to deal with socially stressful situations (e.g. famines, epidemics or natural disasters) when we have science to guide our agricultural, healthcare, and emergency response sectors. Russell (1948), Popper (1950), Diamond (1997) and Dawkins (1998) all champion this sentiment.

To be sure, humans still require something to believe in – however, it just doesn’t have to be a supernatural entity (i.e. a personal god), and the commitment to society need not be so costly. There is no reason why belief in philosophical principles cannot substitute nicely, including concepts of decency (humanism), science (empiricism) and Rule of Law (including the Bill of Rights). These concepts represent a new ideology with which to supplant religious concepts, or out-compete them at the group level, and the capacity to adjust to such changing conditions is adaptive so far as we can peer into the future.


  1. Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Christie, Kennet. 1998. Ethnic Conflict, Tribal Politics: A Global Perspective. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
  4. Dawkins, Richard. 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex. New York: Appleton.
  6. Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.
  7. Durkheim, Emile. 1912. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.
  8. Hamilton, William D. 1975. Innate Social Aptitudes of Man: An Approach from Evolutionary Genetics, in R. Fox (ed.), Biosocial Anthropology, London: Malaby Press, p.133-53.
  9. Kelly, Raymond. 2000. Warless Societies and the Origin of War. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  10. MacNeill, Allen. 2006. The Capacity for Religious Experience is an Evolutionary Adaptation to Warfare. In Fitzduff and Stout (eds.) (2006) The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace: Volume 1: Nature vs. Nurture. Praeger Security International, chapter 10, p.257-84.
  11. Popper, Karl. 1950. The Open Society and its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  12. Russell, Bertrand. 1948. Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  13. Salter, Frank K. 2002. Risky Transactions: Trust, Kinship, and Ethnicity. New York: Berghahn Books.
  14. Turcan, Robert. 1997. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Blackwell Publishing Limited.
    Williams, George C. 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  15. Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


  1. Dan,

    Thanks for letting
    me know
    of your post and inviting my comments. I’m delighted you did that. A welcome and encouraging compliment.

    The essay you’ve written after attending Allen MacNeill’s class gives an impressively interesting and thoughtful survey of some of the issues arising from the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary biology perspective. Congratulations on the effort you put into it.

    The increasing attention evidently being given to religion amongst evolutionary scientists and in other scientific fields is highly a positive development, I think, which must lead to gains in understanding of the nature of religion, a phenomenon that plays a central role in civilization and individual psychology. In particular, science is beginning to demonstrate that religion is in essence a single phenomenon, from the viewpoint of its role in human nature, albeit that numerous “religions” and “sects” provide an endless variety of examples of the phenomenon. When this realization takes hold more widely in society, it promises to alleviate the tribalism (as you call it), that bedevils adherence to religion in a globalising world. Such a realization is analogous to the realization resulting from scientific study that biologically there is no such thing as separate races amongst humanity, which dealt a death-blow to racist concepts and ideologies. It has been proven that biologically, regardless of superficial differences, mankind is one. It seems it will soon be demonstrated scientifically that in religious propensities, too, mankind is essentially one. One other contextual point I want to make is that although my perspective is that of a religious believer, I have the utmost respect for science, and consider that its clear findings should be readily accepted.

    As your account shows, religion and the dynamics of social life have been closely intertwined from the earliest times down to the present. The story (history) of religion and the story of social evolution go hand in hand. Religious doctrines, practices and institutions have glued societies together. Religions have served to confer legitimacy on kings and rulers, provided a common language and symbolic models whereby the people as a whole could understand their place in belonging to their societies, and offered social occasions, such as collective worship services, where people formed a sense of solidarity with one another beyond groupings of family, occupation and class. As is often noted in this context, the word religion comes from a Latin word which literally means to tie, fasten, or bind. One of the primary functions of religion, then, is to bind people together. (Its other primary function is to strengthen the psycho-spiritual wholeness of the individual.)

    It is pretty much a universal law that the survival of individual entities is best ensured by being part of a larger group. The cell can best survive as part of a body. The individual animal can best survive as part of a pack, flock, or troupe, etc. Survival for most human beings is nearly impossible if cut off from society. This factor drives the evolutionary process in the direction of larger and larger agglomerations of entities.

    Describing religion as a feature of tribalism is correct insofar as it applies to the tribal stage of social evolution, but religion has also been central to the life of the larger groupings that emerged when tribes banded into city-states, nations and empires. The survival-value of religion is not limited to tribes, but arises from its unifying efficacy in societies of small scale or large. In fact, religion has often taken the lead in promoting larger groupings and wider loyalties. Christianity at its inception was a movement with a mission aimed at overcoming all forms of artificial barriers between people. As St. Paul wrote to his fellow-Christians, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” This expressed a spiritual conception paralell to the multi-tribal material civilisation of the Roman Empire. In the end it proved to be a more effective conception than the Roman pantheon, eventually winning an Emperor to its side, and a large proportion of the populace. When Islam appeared on the scene, it went even further in promoting wider loyalties. Muhammad’s teachings were very explicit not only in upholding the ideal of all under Islam being “one in spirit”, to use St. Paul’s term, but also in laying out laws and social structures giving practical effect to this vision. A nation state is a society exisiting in a particular territory, that is able to maintain its unity while accommodating people of various ethnicities and religions. An archetypal model for such a society was Arabia under Muhammad. This is too big a subject to go into in detail, so I will have to be content with flagging it as an area for investigation.

    I have reservations about the statement you made that: “Since the expansion of the Judeo-Christian model of monotheism, not much changed for a while, until notable a shift towards secularization.” This statement appears to overlook the huge contribution of Islam to the developments that produced modern civilisation. Unfortunately this contribution continues to be under-recognized in the West. Not long ago I read substantial a book by a French historian (whose name escapes me right now), that managed to survey the gamut of cultural developments in Europe since the Renaissance without once mentioning the debt that Europe owes to Islam. I submit that this Euro-centric blind spot of Western scholarship seriously undermines Western understanding of religion. Its no accident that the Renaissance began in Italy, a part of Europe in close contact with the Islamic world through trade and geographic proximity. What has this got to do with the present discussion? Islam fills in an important missing link in the story. Religion consistently has a progressive, boundary-expanding effect, but this fact is obscured when the progression of religion in the West is assumed to be Judaism, to Christianity, to Enlightenment humanism. I suggest that the impulses that lead to the Enlightenment came out of the Islamic world.

    Regarding your conclusion, I’m 100% with you in applauding decency, science and the rule of law. Yet the historical experience of humankind that has given us these concepts was thoroughly imbued with religion. The concepts may be termed secular in the sense that they are not bound up with the doctrines of any religion in particular, and in general are subscribed to by any modern sensible person. On the other hand, they are “religious” concepts because they are in the domain of thought that religion has always dealt with, and are an outcome of historical movements that originated in religion. Increasingly it is being seen that humankind has a common religious heritage. The most far reaching proposals and plan of action for overcoming the boundaries of nationalism and all forms of prejudice and discrimination in the world today are those of the Baha’i religion. The core impulse of religion is not towards tribalism, but towards ever-greater unity.

    Regrettably I haven’t had time to adequately clarify/justify all of my statements above, but I hope that overall my response does not disappoint as initial feedback. I’ve been taking a break from blogging interactions because of OOS and the need to deal with various challenges. But I’m very glad that such a stimulating correspondent as yourself has prompted me out of hibernation. Thanks for your kind best wishes. My greetings too, for your health, wealth, and happiness!

  2. Dan, I’m taking the liberty of placing here your most recent post on my blog, so as to bring everything into one place. I will follow this up with a post containing my responses to your points.

    Thank again for the feedback, and I’m glad to hear that I was well-received on the whole! As to some of your points that caught my attention:

    1 – Religion and Secular Science: Indeed, as you note, the way in which I contrasted these two concepts is not entirely correct, as they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We, as people, tend towards both belief in god and acceptance of science on the whole, and we modify our views of both to accomodate the other. I do think that this marginalizes god (in the scientist’s mind) and scientific information (in the theist’s mind), and that the result is grudging acceptance of science on the whole, along with the increasing abstractness of our various gods.

    I think that this is a critical part of my concluding paragraphs that I could have better elaborated on, and is also the most speculative…

    2 – The references to “one spirit” in early Christianity and Islam that you make are another interesting direction to take this discussion, I agree. I am less familiar with early Islam, unfortunately, and the idea that it strongly influenced the Englightenment and the Renaissance is entirely new to me. Very interesting…

    3 – On the historical origins of secular ideas in religion, well, yes that’s true: but can a secular ideology be capable of replacing a religious ideology? Or, at least, can Spinoza’s God replace the idea of a personal God. This is very speculative, and based heavily on my own personal biases however, as with #1.

    4 – You stress however that “The core impulse of religion is not towards tribalism, but towards ever-greater unity” – now on this I disagree, of course. I think that religion is adjusting to a changing world by enlarging the community of fictive kin to be more and more inclusive, but religion traditionally has served to unite people only within the direct group. Originally, that group was the tribe, then it became the city, then the state or nation, or the race, etc., under specific creeds. Soon it may be all of humanity – but it seems more likely that it is in human nature is to identify and work against an adversary or opponent. Whether this is more politics or psychology is up for debate, but religion certainly works in favor of this phenomenon.

    Clearly I’ll need to do some further reading… But in the meantime, I do indeed value your reasoned critiques! (I don’t want to just assume that I’m correct, but see how they stand up to alternative worldviews). :-)

    Best wishes to you and yours,

  3. Dan,

    Re your point (1), religion vs. secular science. I get it that modern science, political philosophy, etc., have introduced whole new ways of seeing the world that evidently in many ways supplant the role of traditional religion.

    Re (2), see: Islam’s contribution to Europe’s renaissance. This is random website I picked up through a 1 minute google search, but it seems to have some useful information bearing on my point.

    (3) Secular philosophy, Spinoza’s reflections on God, etc., are on a continuum with religion. They carry out the same kind of activity as religion performs under the name of theology, etc. The matters that religion deals with are not disappearing, although former religious concepts are indeed being transformed into a wider and more comprehensive understanding of the world. Is this new understanding “non-religious” / “anti-religious”? I submit not, in the sense that the child is not different in kind from the mother.

    (4) Traditional religion in any particular historical period always has a backward-looking tendency and this kind of religion fits your description of religion that supports ethnocentrism. But traditionalism is the tail end of the religious impulse. The arrowhead pushes hard against the status quo. This is why the Founders and early followers of the great religions, at the stage when they were new religions, always had a very hard time of it. The general process goes something like this. An inspired individual living amongst some fractious and backward looking people challenges them to a wider vision. His message gets stiff opposition, but a few catch on. There is something powerful in the message that eventually attracts wide allegiance and creates a community transcending former boundaries. But then the community thus created becomes ossified, looking back to past glories rather than future potentials. At this point, the time is ripe for a new Message. Winter, spring, summer and fall.

    – John

  4. The link that I intended to include above is this:

    Islam’s contribution to Europe’s renaissance

  5. I have seen claims by Christians, Muslims, and Jews that their religion is responsible for the birth and advancement of science. I think they can’t all be right.

  6. Ivy and John,
    I’m inclined to think that they all can be right (that is, there are elements to basic human decency, rule of law, and higher learning in all of the major religions) and all wrong (these mainstream religions don’t fully embrace the secular embodiment of these ideas, and in fact react back against them) at the same time.

    Yes, there’s a continuum or spectrum of opinions on this topic, ranging from one religious group to another. But doesn’t that make the development of secular thought to appear to be more of a succession of increasingly progressive ideas, rather than just reiterations of an old theme? You do suggest as much, John, but I think there is a legitimate claim to a succession of concepts, rather than merely a refinement.

    To wit – the comments on traditionalism: “An inspired individual living amongst some fractious and backward looking people challenges them to a wider vision.” I have to ask, would that be a wider or a new vision? This is precisely the situation that evolution (or descent with modification, specifically) suggests: it’s both. In the case of religion, I think that secular ideas retain the conceptual structure of religious ideas, but are a new species.

  7. Ivy — can you fill us in on your concept of the evolution of human thought, and the role that religion has played in it?

    Dan — yes, I agree that they can be all right, and even more positively, that they indeed are all right.

    More later.

  8. Dan,

    Here’s an angle that seems kind of appropriate to put forward on a blog entitled Migrations.

    A paper by historian Bernard Lewis surveying middle eastern personal travel starts by discussing the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage. He writes:

    “I start with pilgrims, not because the are the earliest chronologically (they are not); but because the pilgrimage — more specifically the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina — is the first really major factor of personal travel over vast distances in human history, and for long it remained the most important single factor.”

    He explains the main features of the Muslim pilgrimage and its character as a religious obligation and then goes on to say:

    “Almost from the beginning the Hajj brought travelers from the entire world of Islam (already in medieval times reaching from Spain and Morocco at one end to Southeast Asia and Central Asia on the other), to join together at one time, in one place, and engage in certain common rituals and other activities. This, clearly, has been a factor of enormous importance in the cultural and social history of the Islamic world. Every year, great numbers of Muslims, from many countries and from different races and social strata, leave their homes and travel often over vast distances, to take part in a common act of worship. These journeys, unlike the mindless collective migrations familiar in ancient and medieval times, are voluntary and individual. Each is a personal act, following a personal decision, and resulting in a wide range of significant personal experience.”

    His next long paragraph, which I summarize here, deals with the “important social, intellectual and economic consequences” of the Hajj. The personal interchange that takes place en route to Mecca and in Mecca, and the infrastructure needed to support pilgrimage, facilitates development of contacts that foster trade, scholarship, literature, systematic communication links between distant places, a profound sense of common awareness amongst the pilgrims of belonging to a larger whole, enhancement of social and cultural mobility, and “a corresponding evolution of institutions”.

    (See Lewis, Bernard; “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East”; Oxford University Press, 2004; pages 137-138)

    Bernard Lewis’ account of the Hajj struck me as showing a fascinating example of the power of religion. It very well illustrates that religion serves not only to hold existing bodies of people together (ethnocentrically) — it also creates new communities that transcend former boundaries. Moreover, the genius of a concept like the hajj is astonishing. An institution like that the Hajj that mobilizes people to go way out of their comfort zone, geographically and mentally, in contributing to the creation of an entirely new civilization, is exercising motivational forces that reach deep into the individual and collective psyche in a manner that religion is uniquely capable of doing. The creation of the Hajj by the Prophet Muhammad exhibits both deep insight into human nature and an extraordinary foresight regarding the outcomes by way of building a unified Islamic community.

    Concerning the power of religion in contrast with the power of secular philosophy, ‘Abdu’l-Baha comments:

    “Consider whether there exists anywhere in creation a principle mightier in every sense than religion, or whether any conceivable power is more pervasive than the various Divine Faiths, or whether any agency can bring about real love and fellowship and union among all peoples as can belief in an almighty and all-knowing God, or whether except for the laws of God there has been any evidence of an instrumentality for educating all mankind in every phase of righteousness.

    “Those qualities which the philosophers attained when they had reached the very heights of their wisdom, those noble human attributes which characterized them at the peak of their perfection, would be exemplified by the believers as soon as they accepted the Faith. Observe how those souls who drank the living waters of redemption at the gracious hands of Jesus, the Spirit of God, and came into the sheltering shade of the Gospel, attained to such a high plane of moral conduct that Galen, the celebrated physician, although not himself a Christian, in his summary of Plato’s Republic extolled their actions. A literal translation of his words is as follows:

    “‘The generality of mankind are unable to grasp a sequence of logical arguments. For this reason they stand in need of symbols and parables telling of rewards and punishments in the next world. A confirmatory evidence of this is that today we observe a people called Christians, who believe devoutly in rewards and punishments in a future state. This group show forth excellent actions, similar to the actions of an individual who is a true philosopher. For example, we all see with our own eyes that they have no fear of death, and their passion for justice and fair-dealing is so great that they should be considered true philosophers.[1]

    “The station of a philosopher, in that age and in the mind of Galen, was superior to any other station in the world. Consider then how the enlightening and spiritualizing power of divine religions impels the believers to such heights of perfection that a philosopher like Galen, not himself a Christian, offers such testimony.”

    [See “Galen on Jews and Christians” by Richard Walzer, Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 15. The author states that Galen’s summary here referred to is lost, being preserved only in Arabic quotations.]

    (Abdu’l-Baha, “The Secret of Divine Civilization”, p. 83)

    In the past, religion has always been able to come up with powerful ways of dealing with the particular problems of each age in historical evolution. (As alluded to by Galen in the above quotation, part of religion’s power lies in its ability to express metaphysical concepts in metaphorical language that captures the imagination. Religion knows people better than they know themselves.)

    Looking at religion’s past record, I put my money on religion “saving” humankind again in our own age. But not religion as hitherto known. Rather, religion in a form that deals effectively with the conditions and needs of our time. To reflect on what form of religion that might be would lead me into a discussion first of the significant and valid points you’ve made about emergence of secularism and universal concepts of human rights, scientific knowledge, etc., that have emerged in the last 300-odd years, and whether these represent a new species of thought that supersedes religion. I agree that reconciling modern developments in thought, with religion, is an important subject. But for simplicity in this present post, I will limit it to the single theme that in history religion has demonstrated an influence that secular thought and secular institutions never achieve.

    Religion has been the driving force in the evolution of civilization for thousands of years. Why suppose it has suddenly run out of steam?


  9. John,
    That’s a very strong point that you make, and I think that you’re right, for secular concepts to successfully supplant religion it would have to develop the raw emotional and unifying power of religion, and that’s not likely to happen in the conceivable future. At least not for the majority of our societies.

    That’s a major stumbling block in my essay’s conclusion, which I see a little more clearly now.

    These secular ideas and concepts have the feel of being right, correct, rational, etc., but that’s not enough for the human mind to grasp fully. Maybe David Hume was right when he said “Reason is the slave of the passions.” I still have a huge personal problem with this though, because, as I’m so committed to rationalism, I personally don’t understand this deep emotional appeal of ritual, etc. As such, I think I’d still prefer to reconcile this schism between rational and emotional concepts by saying that we’re obviously still retaining so very much of our animal instincts, and dominated by our unconscious minds.

    Just how conscious and self-aware are we?

    You’ve given me a lot to think about, John, that I’ll have to mull over for a couple days. But I think you’re right about this pilgrimage example being relevant to Migrations, and I’ll put it up as a separate post after giving this more thought.


  10. Thinking over your comments some more John, I’m reminded that religion is as much a divisive force, reinforcing the superiority of creed and ethnicity, as it is a uniting force. (that was one of my main arguing points for religion, tribalism, nationalism, and ethnocentricity)

    With that in mind, could it not also be that, in a world where globalizing forces are uniting the world, bringing people of diverse creeds, ethnicities, and races into contact, the diversive aspects of religion are hurting us more than helping us?

    Pilgrimages work nicely for intra-faith unity, but what do they have on inter-faith cooperation? Many of these faiths that heavily-invest in in-group unity are also more aggressive towards out-groups, supporting my comparison with tribalism.

  11. Dan,

    Its Monday morning so I have time for just a short answer.

    Being short, it will seem superficial, but it nevertheless gets to the heart of the matter from my perspective.

    That is — I totally agree with you about that traditional religion in many (but not all) of the forms that we see, has serious disunifying effects.

    This is one of the reasons for my being a Baha’i, and not a follower of one of the older faiths.

    The Baha’i teachings are at the forefront of the religious impusle towards unity.

    See the quotations posted here:

    Would like to fill in the nuances, but time does not allow today.

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