The Evolutionary Bases of Religion

The Evolutionary Bases of Religion



In part, I guess, imported from the United States, the debate concerning laicism strikes back in Old Europe’s political arena. With Mr. J. Ratzinger expecting to have a mention to the “Judeo-Christian origins” of the European culture in the so called European “Constitution” and certain Eastern-European countries, such as Poland and Romania mimicking the most retrograde American States in their will to remove the theory of evolution from the academic curricula, it is maybe time to say a word about the religious fact from an evolutionary viewpoint.

There was a time when the Catholic Church was trying to conciliate religion and science. Namely, the argument went that the creationist legends as described in the Old Testament had to be interpreted as a metaphor and, as such, were not irreconcilable with the scientific theories. Times have changed and, in view of the increasing political weigh that religious fanatics have won in the States and Eastern-Europe, the Church(es) has come back to its old way of trying to bow science’s back, replacing, as far as possible scientific theories with, more convenient for its own interests, superstition.


Yet, if the Church does not attempt anymore to come to terms with evolution, the theory of evolution can, in my opinion, very well explain the religious phenomenon. In that sense, I would tend to agree with Ratzinger in the notion of religion being a very intrinsic characteristic of mankind. However, whereas he would make use of the ethereal notion of “soul”, I will stick to, more prosaic, biology. It is not that I claim that religion is in our genes, but almost.

Self preservation

Life is attached to life. Even though the mere concept of instinct has been questioned as a valid interpretative category; here, in private, we should not have any problem to admit that the so called self preservation instinct constitutes the most omnipresent and intrinsic characteristic of any living organism. From bacteria to mammals, any perceived danger to the existence or physical integrity of an individual triggers an immediate, and often violent, reaction. A true chemical cascade of anguish.

This intrinsic attachment to life constitutes the most essential characteristic of life itself. The strongest instinct. It is understandable. An organism deprived of such a self-protection mechanism would see dramatically reduced its chances of survival and, therefore, of the survival of its offspring.


We all know very well, that this anguish cascade is not sparked off only in the presence of the perceived danger itself, but also the mere memory of it, or a somehow related stimulus or even the anticipation of a  painful future can make us feel a very vivid fear.

This is specially true for humans. For we, or a least we so believe, are “blessed” with a more powerful imagination and  a more profound self-awareness than any other living creature.

The cheese puffs’ curse (death awareness)

But this blessing can be also a curse, for we, mankind, and just we, are aware that one day we no longer exist and we have named this atrocious notion “death”. From the point of view of the self preservation instinct, the idea of not existing anymore is just unbearable. And, yet, we have to live with it. How can we possible accept that?


Well, in fact, we do not. Our prolific imagination has devised every possible scape to our tragic, individual and possibly collective, destiny: whether it is some kind of afterlife (heaven, valhalla, paradise, or even hell), resurrection, reincarnation, E.T. … anything goes. Anything is better than the notion of our physical extinction, death.

Most of us will always prefer to believe in whatever absurd superstition rather than accepting the idea of a definitive death.

Religion feeds itself from the fear of death, the strongest possible fear, for it is deeply rooted in the self preservation instinct, which is, in turn, the most intrinsic feature of life.


In our times, the psychosis of crisis, together with the accompanying neoliberal policies, will contribute to make people fell more insecure, thus paving the way to all form of superstition: established religions, Nazism, satanism, ufology, …

The people who have chosen to live by the reason, should be very aware of this process and oppose the current revival of obscurantism.