Does religion serve a function in the evolution of religion?

Is religion a garden that grows just because it can, or does it serve an evolutionary function?

Evolutionary approaches to the study of religion suffered in the last century, due in no small part to the lingering specter of Social Darwinism (Laland & Brown, 2002).  As a result, much of the research currently available comes from the social sciences.  David Sloan Wilson (2003) considers the data from the social sciences useful, analogous to that of the naturalist field research on which Darwin based his theory of natural selection.  In this spirit, this paper will utilize a social sciences concept particularly compatible with evolutionary approaches: function, or the secular utility provided by religion to its adherents.

The social sciences and functionalism

Durkheim introduced the notion of function in 1912 by suggesting that religions “unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 2001).  Malinowski retorted that religion’s function was not social but psychological.  He saw religions as helping humans deal with a “range of anxieties, forebodings and problems concerning human destinies and man’s place in the universe” (Malinowski, quoted in Wilson, B. C., 1998).  Navigating between these, Geertz combined social and psychological functions as follows: “[religion is] (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 1973).

Relevance to the evolution of religion

The hypothesized functions of religion, of which these are only a small sample, are fertile for evolutionary analysis: they may well be the means by which religions attract followers at the individual or societal level—the honey that attracts the bee, as it were.  On the other hand, religion may be a byproduct of evolutionary processes, serving no adaptive function in the modern context.  Thus, methodologies may be illuminated by comparing how they deal with the question of adaptive function.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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