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Question: How did religion emerge from evolved human traits and behaviors?

Robert Wright: Well, for example, take the intuition that you see in some kinds of religious context that there’s something that is a source of evil, or a source of contamination. Something that has this metaphysical property that should lead you to keep your distance. Well, that could make sense as a product of natural selection in the context of things that could give you a disease. So for example, it may be that the kind of revulsion that people have at kind of rotting flesh, or something – Okay, that’s bad stuff, get away from it. That could have a clear-cut foundation in natural selection. But that kind of aversion, the idea of something giving off some kind of vibes that should lead you to steer clear of it, can then become more of a religious conception in other contexts. Or an emphasis on ritual purity in that sense, this basic distinction between the pure and the kind of non-pure, and the idea that there’s these things you do to make sure you’re on the right side. That’s just one example of something whose ultimate roots could be in natural selection and yet there’s a kind of a – some cultural evolution has to happen before it assumes the forms that we’re most familiar with.

Question: How has religion itself evolved since our hunter-gatherer days?

Robert Wright: Well, to judge by observed hunter/gatherer societies, and there were a lot of them that have been observed before they had a whole lot of contact with more technologically advanced societies. To judge by them, there was a time before the invention of agriculture when apparently every society on the planet was essentially polytheistic. There was a belief that there were a lot of gods and spirits and they were responsible for the good things and the bad things. And in fact, it appears that the original function of religion was to figure out, why do good things happen to us? Why do bad things happen to us? How can we manipulate the forces responsible for those good things and bad things, which were assumed to be kind of human-like beings, psychologically, you know, these gods that were deposited. How can we manipulate those to increase the number of good things that will happen and reduce the number of bad things? How can we reduce the amount of disease, the number of horrible storms, and increase the number of wars we win, or the number of – the amount of food that grows around us or something. 

So, originally religion did not seem to have been concerned with morality the way we think of religion being now. And one reason is because in a hunter/gather society, morality is not such a complicated issue. When you’ve got a small group of people living around each other day-to-day, people just kind of keep each other honest. There’s not – as far as like theft, which is one thing that came to be a big issue, in a hunter/gather village, the two things about theft are, there’s no where to hide what you steal, and there’s not much to steal anyway. Right? So, it’s kind of not an issue.

Now, as time wore on and societies grew more complex, you had larger and larger societies, and people interacting with one another who weren’t on such kind of close terms, didn’t know each other so well. The more and more you did have what we consider kind of moral/ethical issues like theft. And then you do see religion begin to assume the role of the enforcer of these kinds of moral sanctions. So, when you get to kind of chiefdoms, which are when you have – at the point where you have agriculture, but writing hasn’t yet been invented, you have these kind of modestly complex societies known as chiefdoms, and in a lot of those you see these ideas that people who steal fruit from a tree that’s on somebody else’s property they will be punished by the gods and stuff like that.

Question: Is it valid to consider some faiths more “evolved” than others, or are all such distinctions inherently biased?

Robert Wright: Well religious beliefs have evolved over time. It’s that there are some kinds of beliefs that are more characteristic of large civilizations that existed only after the invention of writing. I wouldn’t say that that fact makes them better. The fact that they are more evolved in that sense is not a value judgment. On the other hand, it’s true that as time has worn on, especially in situation where people have had productive contact with different kinds of people. People with different ethnicities, different nations, that has tended to kind of broaden their moral horizon. This is something Peter Singers has documented in his book, The Expanding Circle. So, they tended to start thinking, well maybe it isn’t just people of our group that are human beings and deserve to be treated decently. Maybe people who speak a different language, people of a different ethnicity.

I think that constitutes moral progress. And sometimes that has been associated with religion. In other words, it doesn’t have to be, you can have a sheerly secular philosophical version of that belief, but given how pervasive religion has been in the belief system of most societies, that kind of moral progress has shown up in the evolution of religion. And I think you can call it moral progress. It’s not confined to religion and I think it’s a product of a kind of concrete forces – it kind of happens in recognition of enlightened self-interest. But I think it’s good. It’s one of the hopeful things about the direction of history that a belief that a lot of us take for granted now, the idea that people everywhere are human beings and deserve to be treated decently did have to be kind of invented, and was invented. And I think history was on the side of the eventual discovery of that moral truth.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen

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