Religion is a Team Sport


In his book The Righteous Mind,  moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt described religion as a team sport. Haidt compared it to the devoted fans at  universities’s football games. E.O Wilson used a similar analogy to describe ants as what he called eusocial creatures.

Haidt also says such religion is not irrational as many atheists, like the first two I mentioned, assert. Haidt explains that this must have had an effect on our evolution as a species. He calls this evolution by group selection.  I want to point out that evolution by group selection I believe is still controversial. It does not accord with classic Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Religion in a various formats has been around for thousands of years. Such activities over thousands of years must have had some genetic effect, he argues. Is religion hard-wired into us? Is religion baked into our DNA?

This is how Haidt explained it:

“If human groups have been doing this sort of thing since before the exodus from Africa, and if doing it in some ways rather than others improved the survival of the group, then it’s hard to believe that there was no gene-culture coevolution, no reciprocal fitting of mental modules to social practices, during the last 50,000 years. It’s particularly hard to believe that the genes for all those by-product modules sat still even as the genes for everything else about us began changing more rapidly, reaching a crescendo of genetic change during the Holocene era, which is precisely the time that gods were getting bigger and more moralistic. If religious behavior had consequences, for individuals and for groups, in a way that was stable over millennia, then there was almost certainly some degree of gene-culture coevolution for righteous minds that believe in gods and then used those gods to create moral communities.”


Nicholas Wade says it is obvious from looking at these ancient religious practices that they helped groups of people to compete with other groups. He explains the logic of group selection for religious practices this way:

“People belonging to such a [religiously cohesive] society are more likely to survive and reproduce than those in less cohesive groups, who may be vanquished by their enemies, or dissolve in discord. In the population as a whole, genes that promote religious behavior are likely to become more common in each generation as the less cohesive societies perish and the ore united ones thrive.”

Religion survives because it confers an evolutionary advantage on the groups that employ it. Nature selects those groups that are religious!

Isn’t this exactly what sport’s coaches have been preaching for years? Effective teams are more effective than good individuals. Or as Haidt says, “religion is a team sport.”

Haidt says, “Gods and religions in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. Like maypoles and beehives, they are created by members of the group, and they then organize the activity of the group.”

When groups are able to develop cohesion and trust they can accomplish much more than they could without it. Like the mountainside farmers in Bali I mentioned in an earlier post.

Haidt says that 10,000 years is enough time for such genetic changes to take place, “And 50,000 years is more than plenty of time for genes, brains, groups, and religions to have coevolved into a very tight embrace.”

Haidt says this account of religions (note it is not an account of any one religion in particular, but it could include your favourite religion) has important consequences. Haidt puts it this way:

“In Wilson’s account, human minds and human religions have been coevolving (just like bees and their physical hives) for tens of thousands of years. And if this is true, then we cannot expect people to abandon religion so easily. Of course people can and do forsake organized religions, which are extremely recent cultural innovations. But even those cannot shake the basic religious psychology of…doing linked to believing linked to belonging. Asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon, can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.”


Now some of my faithful readers may not like this concept of an evolving religion. On the other hand, one of them has already mentioned that religions evolve, not just people. You may insist on a religion that has been absolutely true without changes for centuries. Just like some people resist the idea that people, or other creatures, evolve at all. Others may find this evolutionary explanation more congenial. What about you?

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