Is religion an adaptive behavior?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Religion is a difficult concept to put into words. Most of us would acknowledge that a good definition of religion must include that it is practiced, at least some of the time, by groups of people, and that it involves symbolism. Symbols communicate meaning beyond their physical manifestation, and that meaning is often quite abstract.

An example of a religious symbol commonly encountered in the USA is the Christian cross. It’s often used in jewelry, tattoos, and incorporated into wall decorations. It represents the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Thus, the cross/crucifix is a symbol, indicating a belief in Christianity, the New Testament as recording the teachings of Jesus, and that Jesus was the Son of God.

Wade Faith Instinct cover cropped

Nicholas Wade, in his 2009 book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Penguin Press, New York), seeks (page 5):

…to understand religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Some of the implications that emerge from this approach may be unwelcome to believers, others to atheists. People of faith may not warm to the view that the mind’s receptivity to religion has been shaped by evolution. Those who regard religion as an obscurantist obstacle to rational progress may not embrace the idea that religious behavior evolved because it conferred essential benefits on ancient societies and their successors.

In short, Wade concludes that behaviors we describe as religious conferred a survival advantage on early humans, and thus were adaptive and favored by natural selection. The benefits he ascribes to religious beliefs and practices include emotions like trust and loyalty, which support cooperation and empathy, improve group cohesion, and improve the survival rate of groups.

Wade’s explanation fits into an adaptive notion of religion in human evolution. He also discusses that language and other behaviors must have been necessary to the development of religion. He notes, however, that (page 76):

The time course in which each behavior was added to the growing complex [of behaviors] cannot at present be constructed. All that is known is that by 50,000 years ago, the date that modern humans dispersed from Africa, all the elements of religious behavior were in place and were inherited by all descendants of the ancestral human population.

Given the long history and genetic propensity for religious behavior that Wade argues for, he notes at the end of The Faith Instinct that, despite the decline of religious belief in many (but by no means all) countries, religion still strengthens “the social fabric” (page 278), makes societies “kinder” (page 282), and probably derived from music (page 283). The information and arguments in the earlier chapters of the book are most anchored in data, but his citations of archaeological data to support his arguments are slim and inconsistently marshaled.

Wade’s book is one of those publications that examine the deep history or deep past of humans, which is also sometimes referred to as big history. A September 2011 story on this website discusses David Christian’s 2004 volume Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.