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Do religions evolve?

  1. May 19, 2009 #1
    This is probably in the wrong place but the thread can be moved. Also, I want a serious, lasting discussion and don't want this thread to be locked so if you are religious and you stumble on this thread, just humour me but don't get offended or start another thieism/atheism debate here.

    I've been working this over in my head and I'm pretty much convinced that religions have been undergoing evolution for as long as they have been around. Think about it:
    1. A simple idea is imagined by an individual. It makes them feel good.
    2. The individual communicates this to others.
    3. Enough people become "infected" for more feel-good thoughts to arise and add to the original.
    4. Eventually stories and false hypotheses build up enough to fill a book as large as a bible. It is now a religion instead of a cult.
    • The ideas exploit us just as internet memes exploit our sense of humour to spread even further.
      [*]It may develop new ways to do this like manipulating us to be aggresive towards people who are of different religions or unconvertable by other means. [*]Some religions have concepts like heaven and hell- 2 extremes to change motivations and make conversion more likely. This exploits our fear and want for pleasure. [*]The feeling that we were specially made and put on Earth by the divine entity exploits our insecurities and makes us feel special and loved.​
    • Religions mutate all the time and branch off into different 'species' or sects. Some embrace evolutionary biology / natural history to survive and convert new members, others brand it evil (irony).
    • Information, inhertance and changabilty is neccesary for evolution, not solid matter for actual organisms.

    I accept that there may be holes in this so please discuss. If I'm right, however, we should probably search beyond literal viruses, for other things that are passed around and tend to manipulate us.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2009 #2


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    certainly they do. Religions are a cultural adaptation that facilitates cooperation among larger groups of people than otherwise would be possible. Cultures with religions that fostered a higher degree of in-group cooperation and self-sacrifice of individuals had a competitive advantage over cultures that lacked these attributes. Later these belief systems became more sophisticated, expanding the in-group definitions and addressing the more private concerns that people had. There is a feedback loop between religious dogma and self-organizing social systems - where each influences the other in ways that adapt over time in ways that the founders of the religion could not imagine. Examples would be the transformation of local pagan gods into a pantheon of Saints in the early Christian tradition or Hinduism's incorporation of a host of tribal dieties into a belief that all were a reflection of one ultimate reality
  4. May 19, 2009 #3
    Belief systems come and go. Some common systems are called religions, most aren't, no matter how freaky. These last few decades sees a growth in natural animism.
  5. May 20, 2009 #4
    some devolve too
    as in fundies like the tali-ban
    or nut christian cults like david K
  6. May 20, 2009 #5


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    If you want to look at the question like a scientist, you might consider making simple predictions based on the premise that yes religions evolve, and have evolved.

    If you think of a religion as a large organism that thrives by absorbing people and by encouraging its member cells to have lots of babies (and bring them up to believe/belong) then you can make predictions like:

    there will be found sects of christianity that said people shouldn't have babies
    (the Cathar sect in south France, I think maybe the Shakers in north America) and these will have gone extinct. (And yes the Cathars did go extinct, the religion died out, as you would predict.)

    You can predict religions will naturally evolve a tendency to make members have lots of offspring because those religions that do will eventually out-compete the religions that don't.

    (i.e. Jesus didn't say to have big families, but branches of christianity arose which do encourage procreation, because that kind of mutation would contribute to reproductive fitness.)

    You can predict that successful religions will focus a lot on reproduction, make it communal business rather than private business, and also focus on the indoctrination of children.

    Also you can predict that religions will evolve coercive doctrine, like a hell doctrine. Because whenever that mutation occurs it will contribute to the fitness of the religion. It will encourage members to make sure their children stay in the community, and motivate conversion and retention----so again, religions where a hell mutation occurs will grow, and those without such a gene will shrink.

    So you can play around with simple population models and simply hypotheses and predictions----just the way people study biological evolution. Reproductive fitness, survival fitness, enhanced competitiveness.

    I think this will not be news to you, because everything I've said is more or less implicit in your question "do religions evolve?"
    Last edited: May 20, 2009
  7. Jun 2, 2009 #6
    are you familiar with the idea that the bible is a kind of super ink blot test? that everone reads into it what is really in their own hearts? (the bible calls it 'speaking in tongues', i.e. 'everyone heard them speaking in their own tongue'.)
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2009
  8. Jun 2, 2009 #7
    Cathar's were wiped out by the catholic's in a war
    the albigensian crusade

    the cathars were a kinder gentler form of christian based in the gostic

    they were anti marriage
    and their leadship class didnot have kids
    but the same thing can be said of the catholic's
    and saddly catholic's didnot die out as a result
  9. Jun 3, 2009 #8

    Ivan Seeking

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    When I mentioned the Shakers in another thread, this thread came to mind.

    Talk about an evolutionary dead end, the Shakers were celibate.
  10. Jul 1, 2009 #9
    I remember taking a religious studies class in my undergrad (god knows why) and I remember a discussion of what they called 'critical theology' which was the purposeful reinterpretation of religious texts to meet the needs of a new time (or just to aid and agenda). For example, 'spare the rod, spoil the child' would have been taken to be an endorsement of corporal punishment for children 50 years ago, now it is often interpreted to mean the rod of the sheppard, the rod of guidance. Anyways, I think this is basically the 'evolution' or religion
  11. Jul 6, 2009 #10
    There is a whole sub-field of economics, the economics of religion, that tries to address the questions you raised: how religions evolve and respond to incentives. A short paper giving an overview of the science is available here: "[URL [Broken] to the Economics
    of Religion[/URL]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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