Robin Dunbar examines the possible evolutionary role of religious thinking
Gabriel Andrade, 08/15/22
… Considering the frequency of schisms in religions, one must conclude that they are not really about leavened bread or hand gestures with two fingers. They are about numbers. Religions work well in small groups. When they grow too large, they inevitably split, bringing the group again to a smaller number. Trivial silly things (such as the two fingers) are merely an excuse to keep groups smaller and tightly knit.
This is a main thesis of Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved. The author — a key figure in evolutionary psychology — is well-known for the number that bears his name. According to the “Dunbar’s number” hypothesis, human beings can sustain stable social relationships with around 150 people, thus reflecting the social conditions in which the human species evolved. …
As Dunbar explains, organisations:
contain individuals who, left to their own devices, naturally develop idiosyncratic beliefs, and eventually drift apart culturally and intellectually. If the community is below about 150 in size, such disagreements can be dealt with in face-to-face discussions where compromises may be worked out as a result of the mutual obligations that exist between individuals who know each other well. But once community size significantly exceeds this figure, these mechanisms will not work. People do not meet up sufficiently often to maintain cultural coherence.
… While a tendency towards religious behavior is probably hardwired into our brain, Dunbar is not certain whether it is an adaptation, or a side effect of other adaptations.
It does appear that religion offers some advantages (and so in that sense, it may be an adaptation). It provides some sense of security in the face of a hostile world. Religion can also boost placebo responses and may therefore serve some healing purpose.
Dunbar claims that “there is evidence that religious people are happier and more contented with their lives.” For all I know, Dunbar is correct, as many studies do indicate as much. But an important philosophical question ought to be asked: is happiness all that matters? I personally believe John Stuart Mill was onto something when he famously said that:
it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
… But isn’t it more valuable to question the plausibility of the afterlife, even if it becomes a more depressing endeavor? Is truth less important than happiness?
Dunbar explains that:
ancestral religions were informal, immersive and designed to bond very small hunter-gatherer communities of 100–200 individuals living in dispersed camps of 35–50… These religions have little to do with morality or moral codes as such, and they have everything to do with community bonding.
Likewise, skeptics must be on the watch for seemingly secular movements that ultimately, become religions themselves. Christopher Hitchens famously claimed that “religion poisons everything.” Sure enough, when one considers inquisitions, witch hunts, crusades, Jihadists, indexes of prohibited books, and much more, it is difficult not to agree with Hitchens. But what is the most dangerous ideology of our contemporary world? I say nationalism. In that ideology, there is no afterlife, no miracles, no supernatural stuff. But nationalism can be as irrational as any religious sect. In fact, one scholar has called nationalism “the god of modernity.” In the name of that god, tens of millions of people were killed in the 20th Century.
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