The Benefits of Religion for Politics and People

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What are the benefits of religion? How have humans used religion over time?

There have undoubtedly been benefits of religion over time, and humans used religion to cope and understand their world. Religion also offered a sense of community.

Read more about the benefits of religion below.

The Possible Benefits of Religion

If we accept natural selection, then we must place religion itself in a Darwinian framework. But from a purely Darwinian perspective, a belief in religion seems to be an extraordinarily disadvantageous trait that ought to have died out very early on in the evolution of humans.

After all, it compels individuals and societies to expend enormous resources on elaborate buildings, ritual sacrifices, and the maintenance of a priestly caste that does little to ensure the practical, day-to-day survival of either the individual or the group. It also encourages other practices that are disadvantageous to the passing on of one’s genes, including religious war, martyrdom, and celibacy.

And still, religion has survived and indeed thrived, despite what appear to be its significant handicaps. Is there something we’re missing? Does religion confer some evolutionary advantage upon those who believe in it? There might be some benefits of religion.

The Religious Placebo Effect

Religious people often claim that religion provides them with a sense of hope or comfort. A belief in the power of prayer, for example, might provide someone with a greater sense of control over the events in their lives. They are never powerless, because they can always appeal to God to intervene on their behalf. Similarly, a belief in the afterlife might make the grief and despair of losing a loved one more manageable, as the bereaved person can take comfort knowing that they will be reunited with their loved one in heaven. They claim these are some of the benefits of religion.

Holding such comforting beliefs might hypothetically make religious people less likely to succumb to stress-related maladies. If religious faith did indeed have this effect, it would confer an evolutionary advantage, as people of faith would have a greater likelihood of passing on their genes. Unfortunately for theists, the evidence for the health benefits of religious faith is weak; after controlling for other variables, religious people don’t demonstrate any better health outcomes than non-religious people. 

Religion might still work like a placebo, in which a dummy medication succeeds in producing positive health effects because the unaware patient believes they are taking a real drug. The placebo effect is very real and well-documented, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. However, it’s arguably far too small a phenomenon to explain the sheer ubiquity and power of religion. Religion is one of the most dominant forces in all of human history. It has to have arisen from something greater than the placebo effect.

Likewise,  we also can’t ignore the fact that religion also causes stress, often by threatening eternal damnation and torture if you don’t unquestioningly accept its claims. This would make religion an evolutionary disadvantage, as people of faith would be more likely to suffer from stress-related conditions and have a lower likelihood of passing on their genes. 

In-Group Solidarity and the Free-Rider Problem

While religious devotion might be disadvantageous to an individual—for example, because it causes emotional distress and often demands costly material sacrifices such as tithes and offerings to the priesthood—it could conceivably be advantageous to a group. This is one of the so-called benefits of religion. Common belief in the same God (or gods) is a powerful way to foster in-group solidarity and altruism (we’ll explore the origins of altruism in the next chapter). People within a tribe or confederation will be more likely to aid one another if they are members of the same religious faith. This, in turn, will make the survival of the group more likely and enable the transmission of religious belief as an advantageous Darwinian trait.

However,  this theory of the origin of religion through the mechanism of group selection runs into trouble when we consider the problem of free riders. One tribe, tightly knit by its shared devotion to a religious faith that emphasizes war and the slaughter of heathens, might indeed have a strong military (and thus, evolutionary) advantage over a rival tribe with no religion at all.

But a non-believing individual within that warlike tribe would benefit from hanging back in battle and letting his co-religionists engage in the slaughter instead. This free rider would have an advantage at the game of natural selection, because he would have all the advantages of being in the religious tribe (getting to subjugate and expropriate a rival tribe) with fewer of the disadvantages (getting killed because of religious zealotry).

Such a free rider would stand a better chance of passing on his genes to his offspring. Owing to their evolutionary advantage, those descended from non-believers would come to outnumber the progeny of the faithful.

There are some benefits of religion, but religion also comes with some issues.

The Benefits of Religion for Politics and People

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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