Religion: Natural Phenomenon?

May 29, 2007 at 9:03 am 2 comments

Daniel C. Dennett, in his wonderful book Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, puts forth the theory that religion may be an outgrowth of the needs of the human community in its evolutionary process.

He likens religion to two natural evolutionary phenomenon. The first is the “sweet-tooth theory” which asks, “Might we have a god center in our brains along with our sweet tooth? What would it be for? What would pay for it?…God may just be the latest and most intense confection that triggers the whatsis center in so many people. What benefit accrued to those who satisfied their whatsis craving? It could even be that there isn’t and never has been any actual target in the world to obtain, but just an imaginary or virtual target, in effect: it’s been the seeking, not the getting, that has had a fitness advantage…Is religion itself a subspecies of folk medicine, in which we self-medicate for relief, using therapies honed by thousands of years of trial-and-error development?” (Dennett, 83).

The second natural phenomenon Dennett equates religion to is “the symbiont theory” which states, “religions might turn out to be species of cultural symbionts that manage to thrive by leaping from human host to human host. They may be mutualists— enhancing human fitness and even making human life possible just as the bacteria in our gut do. Or commensals–neutral, neither good for us nor bad for us, but along for the ride. Or they might be parasites: deleterious replicators that we would be better off without, but that are hard to eliminate, since they have evolved so well to counter our defenses and enhance their own propagation. If some religions are culturally evolved parasites, we can expect them to be insidiously well designed to conceal their true nature from their hosts, since this is an adaptation that would further their own spread.” (Dennett, 84-85)

Both of these theories are but two among many explanations for religion in this enlightening book. I find either theory compelling as an analogy for the evolution of religion in human society. What think you?


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  • 1. Daniel Downs  |  May 29, 2007 at 10:49 am

    John Eccles, a medical neurologist, studied lectured extensively on the the evolution of the brain. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that evolution cannot account for the human mind. The theory he developed in his latter part of his life postulates a dualism of brain and mind (or soul); thus refuting Dennett’s extension of Durkheim or social symbiotics. Besides, as I understand it, almost all of the major religions were the outcome of the personal revelatory (numinous) experience of their founders. If it could be proved that corresponding physical factors are the cause, then Dennett’s skepticism might have merit. Studies do exist, but they do not prove such religious experience is induced by electro-magnetic forces rather than manipulated by some intelligent being capable of do so.

  • 2. mysteryofiniquity  |  May 29, 2007 at 11:32 am

    There is also just as much evidence to counter dualism as well.
    Isn’t the argument you posit like the old chicken vs. egg conundrum? Which came first body or mind, if indeed they can be separated at all, which I don’t believe they can be? In fact, studies HAVE shown that religious experiences can be physically induced by brain stimulation. See
    So we don’t really know where religion comes from at the moment. Each view is plausible, especially Dennett’s.
    You also write: “Besides, as I understand it, almost all of the major religions were the outcome of the personal revelatory (numinous) experience of their founders.” It could have been revelation or not. Some of those “revelatory” experiences could have been physically induced: epilepsy, etc. but we don’t know that for sure either. No one does.
    Skepticism has merit whether anything’s proven or not. Without it we wouldn’t have science.

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