* 01 September 2007
* NewScientist.com news service
* Helen Phillips
...So why do religious concepts provoke moral behaviour even in non-believers? It's because both religion and morality are evolutionary adaptations, says Jesse Bering, who heads the
At the same time the capacity for religious belief would also have emerged. Our reputation-conscious ancestors would have experienced a pervasive feeling of being watched and judged, he says, which they would readily have attributed to supernatural sources since the cognitive system underlying theory of mind also seeks to attribute intentionality and meaning, even where there is none. So the same adaptations that led to morality could also have driven the evolution of religion.
Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York argues that religious practices are also important for group cohesion and are therefore subject to group selection. As humans have become ever more social over the past 100,000 years, and especially from 10,000 years ago, when agriculture led to huge division of labour in societies, religion and morality would have co-evolved as ways to promote social cohesion. "Religion did play a crucial role in giving us our moral nature, at least evolutionarily speaking," says psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the
Nowadays, adds Bering, whether we believe in a God or not, the brain architecture that causes us to behave as though we might get caught behaving badly is still present. As a result, atheists are no more likely to be immoral than believers. Indeed, his own experiments show that, regardless of whether people believe in supernatural beings, both adults and children cheat less when performing a task in private if Bering has first primed them with the idea that there may be a "god" or a "ghost" watching.
Cultural and technological advances have also changed the way we live, making western liberal societies poor models for understanding the link between religion and morality, according to Haidt. He argues that we are now far more individualistic than our ancestors. "Technology has changed our lives so we can live in new ways. We can now be moral without religion. We have developed other means of social control," he says, such as laws, police forces and CCTV cameras.
Interesting that the formation of language, and thus a far-reaching 'reputation' may have had some influence on behavioural changes. Acting 'moral' made for a better reputation, and better reception from 'strangers' who had heard of a person's exploits 'through the grapevine'?