By César Marín:
Science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria” as was famously argumented by Stephen Jay Gould. There are many overlapping points, but not in a creationist way. Science explains religion and not the other way around. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin started Evolutionary Religious Studies. From the British naturalist’s work, three current research questions are derived: How religious systems began? Which is their neurological context? And how is it currently kept? Such topics answer to different research programs and need to be explored in different methodological and biological levels.
On neurology of religion (“neurotheology”) there are many advances, with the work of V. S. Ramachandran (University of California) being the most prominent author. The neurology of moral now allows us to establish religion’s synaptic mechanisms, i.e: primitive emotional networks and ecstasy mind states in religious rituals are understood. Thus, when the religious experiences are extreme, the brain injuries are similar to those caused by mental disease. A different research program is to trace the social origin of religion. Evidence of “proto-religion” is as 100.000 years old before the present day (before we got out of Africa, presumably), both in Homo sapiens and in other hominids. Several events could have led hominids to question their existence and to ritualize death (first evidence of proto-religion), such as natural disasters, big migrations, wars with other tribes and sensorial disturbance experiences (hallucinogens, E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth). Those events increased leaders’ power of and favored group cohesion.
Now, how come humanity is still so religious when science, philosophy and secularism have moved quite forward in the past five centuries? Humans are still tribal monkeys. Natural Selection not only acts in individual people traits but also in the groups where those people belong. Evolutionary biologists and social psychologists such as D. S. Wilson (Binghamton University) and Jonathan Haidt (New York University) have shown theoretically and empirically (Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, respectively) how the more unreal belief systems stem within more endogamous, tribal, cooperative (within the group) groups, and how such groups are more eager to engage violently against groups with beliefs far less improbable and coercitive. Groups with more complex beliefs, in which authority is highly predominant, have strict rules of social drift and migration (such as castes).
In the last two decades, evolutionary biology seems to have been clarifying religion’s biocultural landscape. There is something both in the biological substratum and in the sociocultural context that imposes cooperation via religion in a level above the individual. Biological substratum is obtained with neurobiology and molecular biology, and the sociocultural context is obtained with evolutionary theories such as Multilevel Selection Theory and Evolutionary Game Theory. There is no other way to explain the highly cooperative, altruistic and obedient behaviors religion implies, than with gene-culture interaction and with natural selection acting at group level. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a moral system based exclusively at individual level, when taken to an extreme, leads to homicide, and a moral system based at group level, when taken to an extreme, leads to genocide.