Sunday, October 24, 2010

Evolved Morality and Religion

When Dr. Alexander came to our class to speak in defense of Darwin, he pointed out that because humans have evolved intellectually, we have less of a need to evolve physically. So instead of evolving physical ways to survive socially, human beings, according to Dr. Alexander, have actually evolved a moral faculty. Apparently, Darwin did not really associate himself with what we today call 'Social Darwinism' - he believed human moral behaviour to be profound, important, and ultimately the result of natural (or human?) selection. This understanding of morality as an evolved characteristic makes sense to me, because if humans are indeed social animals, then having a set of behavioural guidelines resulting from a moral sense would probably ensure very good social function. As Dr. Alexander said, if culture evolved to be the mediating force between the conflicting human impulses of 'selfishness' and 'groupishness', then morality evolved to demonstrate the point of balance between the two.

To extend from this idea, I can see how religion, in addition to culture and morality, is a human practice that is the result of our evolutionary path. Religion obviously has a social function, and it works alongside both culture and morality. In many ways, I can see how religion evolved as a logical extension to and development of an evolved cultural and moral sensibility. Thoughts of how the individual relates to the community grow into thoughts about right and wrong, good and evil, and the earthly and the transcendent. The territory of morality becomes encompassed by the territory of religious thinking.

As Darwin and Dr. Alexander both demonstrated, the fact that morality is an evolved characteristic does not demean the meaningfulness and importance of it. Just because it cannot be called 'innate' (insofar as it developed for social reasons and not because humans were born moral creatures) does not mean morality does not define who we are as a species. Perhaps this same logic should apply to religion as well. If religious thinking was also a practice that evolution brought about instead of something innately true for humans, maybe this shouldn't demean its meaningfulness. In other words, maybe thinking that there is divinity in the universe because we have evolved to think that way, instead of because there really is divinity in the universe and we are privy to that knowledge, should not necessarily make religious thinking invalid. If it evolved in us, it clearly evolved for a reason. If it wasn't useful and meaningful, then would it not have died out as a disadvantageous characteristic?

Perhaps that is what is happening to us as a species now. Atheism is on the rise, and religious fundamentalists are (rightly) considered to be lunatic outliers. Religion must have been useful enough for it to have developed in our species to the point that it did, but is it still relevant and useful to us today, or is it being selected against somehow?

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