My hypothesis is that we are - and we are not - religious by nature. That is, that
we are born with a capacity to accept a religion but that we have a default state
to fall back on if we do not ‘find’ religion.
I call this the ‘Default hypothesis for religion’.
Summary of hypothesis
A new individual is born to operate in a default mode, largely relying upon instinctive,
largely selfish patterns of behaviour. It maintains an autonomous level of control
and acts in its own interests.
However, if the individual encounters sufficiently strong social ritual behaviour
by the members of its social group then it has the capacity to bond to the group
- it hands over its autonomy and control to the group.
Human language would appear to operate in a similar way. We are all born with a
capacity to acquire a language - so much is genetic. However, which language we
acquire depends upon our social environment.
The option to switch from an individual mode into a group mode, but only when the
circumstances appear to be right, avoids the disadvantages that ‘simple’ altruistic
I would suggest that this hypothetical optional group bonding is an evolutionary
development of the patterns of behaviour that are found in family groups. The social
groups formed by chimpanzees provide a model.
Being born as an essentially selfish individual places no hazard for the fitness
of the genes carried. However, where there is the option of joining a religiously
bonded group then the advantages may far outweigh the disadvantages.
The word ‘may’ is critical here. If the individual makes the ‘leap of faith’ too
readily he may well be suckered like Pinocchio and taken advantage of by the other
group members i.e. exploited/enslaved. Such foolish genes will be eliminated.
However, if the circumstances under which the bonding with the group are sufficiently
demanding then the risk of being suckered may be reduced to a low enough level for
the advantages of joining to outweigh the disadvantages.
The advantages of being a member of a cooperating group are very high. Provided,
of course, that cheats and traitors etc are sufficiently punished.
I would suggest that the enabling factor for this process of selective bonding to
take place is the high degree of development of human intelligence.
For an individual to make a decision to bond that avoids the evolutionary fate of
simple altruists, he must be able to discriminate between ‘real’ groups and ‘false’
groups, and so avoid being taken-in.
I would suggest that the performance of group rituals involving song, dance, costume
and reference to secrets and mysteries is the main method by which a group will elicit
a new individual to religiously bond with them. One or two individuals doing odd
things is not sufficient evidence that a bonded group is being encountered.
However, if a large number of adults, perhaps all of the significant adults in the
social group, are so engaged in mass religious activity, then this will provide the
necessarily strong evidence that is required for the bonding to occur.
It follows that the ritual should not be too mundane or simply related to everyday
events. It needs to be sufficiently ‘other worldly’ in order for the new individual
to pass through the essential, protective, threshold layer of scepticism. The secrets
and mysteries revealed to the members need, necessarily, to be about beings and events
that cannot be found in the real world. Were they to be so then they would be easily
abused by interlopers.