Religion: Natural Phenomenon?
Daniel C. Dennett, in his wonderful book Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, puts forth the theory that religion may be an outgrowth of the needs of the human community in its evolutionary process.
He likens religion to two natural evolutionary phenomenon. The first is the “sweet-tooth theory” which asks, “Might we have a god center in our brains along with our sweet tooth? What would it be for? What would pay for it?…God may just be the latest and most intense confection that triggers the whatsis center in so many people. What benefit accrued to those who satisfied their whatsis craving? It could even be that there isn’t and never has been any actual target in the world to obtain, but just an imaginary or virtual target, in effect: it’s been the seeking, not the getting, that has had a fitness advantage…Is religion itself a subspecies of folk medicine, in which we self-medicate for relief, using therapies honed by thousands of years of trial-and-error development?” (Dennett, 83).
The second natural phenomenon Dennett equates religion to is “the symbiont theory” which states, “religions might turn out to be species of cultural symbionts that manage to thrive by leaping from human host to human host. They may be mutualists— enhancing human fitness and even making human life possible just as the bacteria in our gut do. Or commensals–neutral, neither good for us nor bad for us, but along for the ride. Or they might be parasites: deleterious replicators that we would be better off without, but that are hard to eliminate, since they have evolved so well to counter our defenses and enhance their own propagation. If some religions are culturally evolved parasites, we can expect them to be insidiously well designed to conceal their true nature from their hosts, since this is an adaptation that would further their own spread.” (Dennett, 84-85)
Both of these theories are but two among many explanations for religion in this enlightening book. I find either theory compelling as an analogy for the evolution of religion in human society. What think you?