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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

The Evolution of Religion

Meg Folcarelli

Near the end of his novel Darwin's Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett questions religion and contends that it was an evolutionary process to keep humans entertained. He says "they [religions] have kept Homo Sapiens civilized enough, for long enough, for us to have learned how to reflect more systematically and accurately on our position of the universe"(519). Dennett's position is a controversial one, and it is difficult to argue because it is such an abstract subject. Religion is associated with free will, and has been part of humans for thousands of years. Is religion as we know it useless now, have we arrived at the point in evolution where it is no longer necessary?

Dennett never completely dismisses current religion, but he does not support its perpetuation either. Dennett's view of religion is as function, something that humans need, like opposable thumbs. He claims that religion has become merely about the actions, and that soon they will die out and belong in museums and "zoos". Dennett elaborates this thought, "what,then, of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes the rituals, the monuments"(519). Is this right? Should only the material aspects be saved? Have they served their only purpose. Dennett seems to say that humans no longer need religions, and that since they have existed for so long they are no longer needed, it is their time for extinction. Will religions disappear leaving only the materials and traditions as Dennett seems to suggest they will, or will they evolve, and change to meet our modern world.

In Karen Armstrong's History of God she says "for 4,000 years it [the idea of God] has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our own century, more and more people have found that it no longer works for them, and when religious ideas cease to be effective they fade away"(376). Armstrong and Dennett agree that religion will disappear altogether. Will beliefs that have survived so many years and tribulations just cease to exist. The thought that they may evolve instead seems to be is more comforting. Perhaps certain beliefs will merge together, or break off, some religions might die out while others will gain strength and change direction. The change of religious affiliations is becoming more evident. From 1980 to 1999 in the U.S. the percent of protestants, catholics, and jews either remained the same or shrank, while the "other" percentage rose significantly (http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/statab/sec01.pdf). This demonstrates, that even though it may be subtle, religion is changing direction.

Religions have greatly benefitted the human population throughout history. According to Dennett, "They [religions] have inspired many people to lead lives that have added immeasurably to the wonders of our world, and they have inspired many more people to lead lives that were, given their circumstances, more meaningful, less painful, than they otherwise could have been"(518). Does this suggest that altruism is only in existence as a result of organized religion? Altruism and religion both came with the emergence of free will, but not necessarily conjunction with each other. Religions incorporated altruism into their belief systems, but it is hard to consider them as one and the same. Religion alone cannot take credit for the existence of altruism. Altruism is its own entity. Religions may have inspired people to behave more morally, but people would have been altruistic without religion. There would be no guilt without religion. Religion has more credit for the existence of guilt than the existence of altruism.

Dennett also calls certain religious beliefs and methods wrong. He says that teaching "creation science" is "misinforming a child" (516). While it is not good to teach children one side of the story, creation science is not misinformation to everyone. Some people believe that God created humans, and that there was no evolution, and it is their right to believe. It is important to understand the argument for evolution, but no one has to give up their beliefs. Dennett also calls simple doctrines wrong, merely because they are "too simple". Dennett goes on about simple doctrines, "They are, in a word, wrong- just as the ancient Greeks' doctrines about the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus"(514). Although the ancient Greek religion no longer exists it was not wrong. It was another religion that simply faded away because it lost pertinence, the same happened to ancient Egyptian beliefs, as well as the Mayan beliefs, and countless other religions. These religions may have disappeared, but they became infused into other religions. The ancient Hellenistic religion became infused into Christianity, and the Sumerian religion was an influence for the writers of the old testament (http://www.comparative-religion.com/ancient/). In that sense the ancient religions continue to exist, they have merely taken a different form.

Will the modern religions of today follow a path decreed by Dennett and Armstrong and disappear, or will they merely become influences in the next wave of religion? The major religions today have been in existence for thousands of years, but that does not mean that they will not evolve. As people and culture change, so will the worlds religions. People will always have faith, and humans have not achieved a point in evolution where religion is no longer needed, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever reach that point.


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