Science and Myth: Top 5 Adaptive Traits of Successful Religions

How do mythic traditions survive through the centuries? How do they thrive? By bringing together science and myth, an evolutionary perspective might help us think about these questions.

By “success” I mean long-time survival. I don’t even begin to consider the moral value or truth-content of religious teachings–all that is placed in brackets. This is an evolutionary view based on the history of religions.

Consider the possibility of the following top five list.

Top 5 adaptive features of successful religions
1. Continuity of motifs defining the religion
2. Vertical transmission
3. Ethics defining the in-group
4. Placeholder terms
5. Paradox

1. Continuity of motifs defining the religion

This is the single most important feature determining success. In order for a religion to propagate itself, it must establish and maintain a recognizable identity. It doesn’t necessarily require a name for itself or an identity as a religion per se, but it does require something to delineate what is and isn’t part of the package that must be passed on to the next generation. Many indigenous religions, such as Shinto, had no name until the introduction of foreign religions necessitated a way to distinguish the local from the alien. Others had no overt identity as religions per se–ancient Greek had no word for “religion” (the closest was theon timai, “honors for the gods”). But it is absolutely necessary for a religion to delineate its key motifs in some way. The signal must be separable from the noise. Thus religions throughout history have developed special motifs to mark off the sacred from the mundane. They may be visual symbols like totem poles, crosses, or mosques, auditory symbols like hymns, chants, or special styles of music, or linguistic symbols like divine names, myths, or doctrines. They may be temporal symbols like annual festivals or rites of passage. Finally, they may be ethical symbols like ritual, prayer, or taboo. Most all religions feature a combination of these motifs.

All successful religions develop a canon of such motifs to identify what is to be propagated. Without it, a would-be religion would be lost in the wash of custom, extinct before it even came into existence. And without maintaining such a canon, an established religion would be absorbed into competing religions. This is what happened to Buddhism in Medieval India: it effectively died out in its birthplace because it was no longer sufficiently different from Hinduism. A canon of motifs functions to define the unit of transmission.

Interestingly, it is not necessary that exactly the same set of motifs carry on down through the ages. It is only necessary that a continuity of motifs be passed on. Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the semi-polytheistic sacrificial temple religion of ancient Jerusalem, but a continuous lineage links the transformations from the one to the other. Japanese Buddhism is virtually unrecognizable compared with the religion founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, but again a lineage connects them.

2. Vertical transmission

The second most important feature is vertical transmission. Transmission of some kind is necessary as a matter of course: a religion of one person is no religion at all. All religions feature transmission. But vertical transmission–that is, transmission through the generations via family lines–is a feature of highly adaptive religions. The other kind is horizontal transmission–that is, transmission via dissemination and conversion. Horizontal transmission is also adaptive, but mainly as a supplement to vertical transmission. Religions consisting solely of converts rarely last. Those that inculcate religion into the young at an early age ensure deeply committed followers bonded to each other by family ties. Due to the immense importance of vertical transmission, religions conducive to large families survive better, if only because they can out-breed their rivals. Thus, those associated with agricultural peoples, whose many children are needed to work the fields, have an advantage in this regard.

3. Ethics defining the in-group

The next most important feature is ethics, but not in any moral sense of the word. Rather, the sense is of a set of prescribed and proscribed behaviors serving to separate the in-group from the out-group. When followers are restricted from partaking in certain common activities, like eating pork, they are discouraged from mingling with outsiders. This serves to protect the all-important canon of motifs from becoming diluted with foreign influences. When followers are exhorted to partake in certain prescribed activities, like eating only food that is halal, they are encouraged to congregate together. This serves to keep children with parents and therefore ensure vertical transmission. The saying “The family that prays together stays together” should actually be amended to “The family that prays together stays faithful to the religion.”
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by Albireo

Dietary restrictions are by no means the only relevant ethics–there are innumerable taboos and ritualistic behaviors that serve the function of separating in-group from out-group. However, diet does seem to deserve special mention, as it is known the world over and is superbly effective. Contemporary Malaysia is a jumble of ethnic groups and religions, but syncretization is stymied in no small part thanks to diet. The Malays can only eat at Muslim kitchens with halal utensils and menus. The Hindu Tamils do not eat beef and so are unlikely to frequent Muslim kitchens and likely to seek out Hindu ones. The Chinese have no special dietary restrictions and so can eat where they like, but that same freedom means that Muslims and Hindus are unlikely to frequent Chinese kitchens. Thus, the breaking of bread together–a key act of good will between peoples–is effectively discouraged. The result is a society boiling with ethnic-religious tension, but extremely adaptive from a religious evolutionary perspective. At the cost of social peace, religions maintain their canons of motifs.

4. Placeholder terms

Of great importance is the strategic use of placeholder terms. By “placeholder terms” I mean key religious terms, the meanings of which are defined so vaguely as to invite a wide range of interpretation. Such terms include god, spirit, truth, wisdom, justice, good, evil, and so on. These terms give a semblance of meaning immediately recognizable to all followers, but their precise meanings are so vague that they can be made to support nearly any policy or agenda that happens to arise. This is vitally important to the long-term survival of religions. As centuries pass and values change, the old motifs must be continually reinvigorated with new meanings. If the key terms are too rigidly defined, they become irrelevant when the social context that gave rise to them is no longer present. Thus, to allow for changing contexts, the terms must remain vague, even vacuous. Each generation fills them with new meanings, all the while purporting to carry on the “ancient” tradition. Reforms in religions are frequently presented as a return to old ways: the previous generations’ meanings are declared corrupt and degenerate, and new meanings are attached under the smokescreen of “getting back to basics.” American currency says “In God we trust”, and a new generation of religious pundits have successfully filled that phrase with their new evangelistic, creationistic, and political meanings, even though the founding fathers were mostly Deists and meant something very different by the word “God.” Proponents of keeping the phrase “In God we trust” on the currency say “God” is open to interpretation, thus emptying the term of specific meaning. At the same time, pundits fill it up again with their highly-specific meanings in order to push their politics. Through this example it can clearly be seen how the term is merely a placeholder for the values and agendas of the moment. The strategic use of placeholder terms allows a religion to stay limber while maintaining the continuity of its motifs.

5. Paradox

Finally, the fifth highly-adaptive feature of religions is effective use of paradox. By “paradox” I mean something not immediately obvious, something that frustrates the conventional, mundane reasoning process and opens a follower to the mysterious. This could be something which by ordinary standards is “impossible.” Miracles are by definition impossible, though they purportedly happen nonetheless. It could also be something unanswerable by ordinary means, such as the question of why we exist or what happens after we die. It could also be something beyond the ken of ordinary perception, such as invisible spirits shooting elf shot to cause illness.

Such uses of paradox are adaptive for several reasons. First, they awaken followers to the limitations of their own understanding, thus making them more receptive to understandings transmitted as part of the religion’s package of motifs. Second, they make the followers dependent on the religion’s motifs to explain the paradox. Third and finally, they cause those who feel “deep in their heart” a given response to the paradox to seek the company of likeminded souls. Humans seem to have a psychological need to be “understood” by their fellows. Thus, followers retreat from those who do not share their religious feelings and congregate with those who do. Contemporary Pagans have hit upon “magic” as a paradox sufficiently mysterious to make them seek out each other and remain reticent around those who “just don’t get it.”

This congregation based on common feeling bonds the community together, serving to enhance the functioning of the previous four adaptive features. Followers express their paradoxical feelings in terms of their religion’s canonical motifs, transmit their feelings to their young in these terms, and adopt the religion’s ethics in order to be part of the group of those who “feel the same.”

Note there is nothing indicating followers do in fact feel the same phenomenological experience. Placeholder terms allow individual, unique, and radically different feelings to be expressed in common linguistic forms, creating the perception of sameness. This sameness may be genuine, or it may be an illusion. So long as a religion’s placeholder terms are vague enough to accommodate all the followers’ different experiences, a perception of in-group commonality can arise and be maintained. Thus Episcopalians and Evangelicals and Roman Catholics and Coptics and Quakers and Snake-handlers can all feel they have a common bond through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though the personal experiences of all these different followers are likely to be radically different.