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The Scientific Reasons for Religious Ritual

by Gary Anderson on 10/06/14

The Scientific Reasons for Religious Ritual

Why do people practice traditional rituals like weddings? Is there anything that the newest scientific discoveries from cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and evolution can tell us about one of the oldest traditions of humankind? At a family party after the recent wedding of my nephew, I had a conversation with one of my nieces, who is a senior studying cognitive sciences at UCLA, about the wedding ritual and some of the topics that she is studying that sparked this essay. Very simply, I think there’s good reason to argue that religion in general and rituals like weddings in particular have been an essential aspect of our evolution as human beings.

An area of research in my niece’s field – how personalities are formed and why – has captured her attention recently. I’d been doing some reading myself in the field, so we talked about how scientists now are testing a hypothesis that our brains form models of personalities of other people as a means to predict their behavior towards us and towards other people in our groups. A related hypothesis suggests that our brains use the same approach to form a model of our own personality – our sense of self – that is an essential filter of all the information flowing into our brain, winnowing that flow down to the amount that our conscious mind can actually process.

She noted she had recently learned that our brains are only able to build and keep track of the personalities of about 150 people, which I remembered from some readings I had done in evolutionary sciences was the number of people in a tribe. The significance in evolution is that the formation of a tribe was an essential stepping stone from simple evolution of the fittest individuals to development of social groups. Without the tribe that could hunt, cook, and group together to collect and process the protein that had been needed to increase brain power, the dividing line between Neanderthals and Homo Erectus could not have been crossed.

This tribal hypothesis had initially been challenged by scientists who pointed out that if a tribe was composed of individuals who were not related by genetics, then it would be easy for moochers to hang out with the tribe, taking advantage of all the benefits without making their own contributions, and simply running away if they might be expected to risk their life to protect the existence of the tribe.

However, there is a cross-over between these two hypotheses: religion. Within the personality research, some scientists are suggesting that not only is the same personality model used to predict the behavior of one’s tribe-mates, and maintain a coherent sense of self, it can also be used to explain factors that a person doesn’t understand. When something happens that can’t be explained – the change of seasons, a thunderstorm and flood, the appearance of a pack of food animals, or the unexpected death of a loved one – the simplest available explanation is that a god, or the collective gods, with personalities similar to the people in the tribe, meant for it to happen.

And just as humans had learned that to gain the cooperation of other people within the tribe meant occasionally doing nice things for them, the personality-modeled god might be influenced in the same way. If one did things that the gods liked, then the gods would be nice in return; on the other hand, if one did things the gods didn’t like, then the gods would do mean things in return. The emergence of tribal priests to provide interpretations of the gods’ wishes would be a simple and obvious outgrowth from this simple god-driven model of natural phenomena.

If gods existed who could be pleased and displeased, then tribal morality could be defined, interpreted and enforced. Do things for the benefit of the tribe, and that would please the gods; neglect to do one’s share or worse, do bad things to other people in the tribe, and the gods would see that, and punish the individual.

In the words attributed to Jesus and quoted by the priest during the wedding ceremony, the simplest statement of God’s law is “Love God with everything you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That key to evolutionary progress was as simple as that.

But of course, evolution was not that simple or well-defined. Even today, we observe that in ourselves, and we can assume in every other individual the old drive for personal survival still exists; that drive is simply overlaid with the imperative to contribute to the continued existence of the tribe.

It certainly isn’t hard to see that for religion to be effective, the simple statement of the basic law would not be sufficient to have the effects necessary to sustain social groupings. Means had to be found to reinforce that principle – to teach it, to reward its practice, and to gain and maintain the commitment of everyone in the tribe to the principle. Hence the growing importance of religion teachings and religious leaders as part of the evolutionary drive from individual survival to the cooperation needed for group survival.

As we saw that Saturday afternoon in the sanctuary of the neighborhood Catholic church, all of those imperatives are satisfied within the ritual of the wedding service. The service was built around teaching and accepting specific commitments of two people and their families and friends, their “tribe.”

If a basic family unit of two people looking out for one another is to be sustained during those periods when travails and trials test the relationship, then they have to make the additional effort to see things through. Though the mutual caring for one another based on their love and affection for each other would be the obvious source of strength, sometimes it wouldn’t be enough to sustain the relationship.

So in the wedding ceremony, the lessons were taught, and the commitment was made in front of the tribe to take care of one another in sickness and in health. In the homily, the priest emphasized that this commitment would often be difficult to sustain, so the couple was asked to promise, “before God and everyone” that they would make the necessary effort to maintain it. In making their promises to each other aloud and in public it was clearly emphasized that their decision was sincere and thoughtfully arrived at.

Similarly, since children would be the likely product of two people of opposite sex committed to each other. are going to be created through the union of two people, then those two people must agree in advance to take care of those two children so that the children wouldn’t become a primary burden on the tribe. But even in that topic, the ritual had evolved so that the gathered tribe was asked to promise that they would pitch in – a promise that would be requested again when the offspring of the union were baptized and brought into the tribe.

Of course, as with all sustaining religions, the ceremony offered many opportunities for emotional reinforcement both of the couple’s commitment to one another and of the members of the tribe’s commitment to the shared values of the other members of the tribe. Chanting, singing, music, movement, color and pageantry all came together to make everyone in attendance feel part of something much greater than themselves. It’s no wonder many people cry at weddings; the ritual has an influence on the personality at a level well below the conscious mind.

So there’s much to learn from the newest scientific research about the reasons for the existence of one of the oldest ritualistic traditions of humankind. We can still question elements of current religions that are undesirable and even understand why some people argue that those unacceptable practices mean that religion is a bad thing. But at the same time, we should learn from recent science that the basic elements of religion have played essential roles in our development as human beings and in our evolution as a species.


Notes on sources:

The scientific research mentioned in this essay is summarized in three fascinating books:

The Social Conquest of Earth (Liveright Publishing, 2012) by Edward O. Wilson, Harvard Professor Emeritus, which discusses the role that formation of social groups played in the emergence of homo erectus as the dominant human species.

God Soul Mind Brain, A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit Word (Leapfrog Press, 2010) by Princeton professor of Neuroscience Michael S. A. Graziano, which presents his working theories on the formation and role of personality models, and their relationship to man’s concepts of gods.

The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2013) by NYU Business School professor of ethics Jonathan Haidt, which reviews literature and research on the central role of religion in evolution and social development.

Comments (2)

1. Allen Cary said on 10/9/14 - 11:39AM
This is a very interesting take on the purpose of religion--a bit more generous than my views on the subject. We just went through another of the great rituals in High Episcopalian, a funeral. I suppose the solace it provided some of the assembled was welcomed. There certainly is a tribal aspect of religion, which is both its strength and its flaw.
2. Gary Anderson said on 10/9/14 - 04:54PM
One issue about religion is that the very strengths that were developed and which in turn facilitated further evolution are now ones that can be used by leaders to turn their followers towards ends that serve the leaders' own self-interests. But if we don't acknowledge the good things that religion does do for most followers most of the time, such as communal solace in times of sadness and loss, then we'll never begin to figure out how to replace those still-needed benefits.

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