Why does religion persist?

Human beings are genetically predisposed to be awestruck


Why does religion persist?
by varjavand

Throughout the history of humankind, we cannot find any phenomenon more enduring and more ubiquitous than religion. It has been with us ever since we started living in communities. While scientific investigations have not provided conclusive evidence regarding the origin of religion, many researchers believe that human beings have a natural inclination for religion because of their genetic makeup. In other words, believing in religion is rooted in our genes. We are predisposed to be spiritual beings and religion is the outward manifestation of our spirituality.

In his book The God Gene prominent geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer explains that spirituality is the product of human genes and is hardwired into our brain. However, other scientists believe that religion is mainly the product of environment and culture, and that it transfers across generations through cultural evolution. Relying on some contemporary researches, the purpose of this article is to shed some light of plausibility on the important issue of the birth of religion and its survival throughout the history of humankind. Unambiguously, this article is not intended to discredit or to undermine the sanctity of any religion in any way.


When I was in Iran a couple of years ago, I visited the holy city of Mashhad. I was mesmerized by the majestic shrine of Imam Reza (Shia’s eighth Imam) and the crowd of pilgrims paying homage to their beloved Imam. It was hard not to notice the begging and weeping of the pilgrims seeking solutions to the seemingly insolvable problems of their lives and unassumingly asking for forgiveness and blessing from Agha (gentleman) Imam Reza. It seems like visiting holy places such as this gives Shia devotees a break from the demands of everyday life and brings them peace because it provides an opportunity to repent, atone for past sins, and improve their spiritual report card.

While I was there, I heard a melodramatic story about a weeping dog that, according to the folks telling the story, had sought refuge in the holy shrine a few days before. According to the Shia narratives, Imam Reza had a reputation for coming to the rescue of animals in imminent danger. That is why he is also known as Imam-e-Zaamin (the guarantor). The following story is from the official Web site of Imam Reza:

“One day when Imam Reza (A.S.) was on his historical journey from Madina to Marw (Khurasan),while in a jungle the Holy Imam(A.S.) came across a hunter who was about to kill a deer. The deer was trying to get away and when she saw Holy Imam (A.S.), she said something to him. Holy Imam (A.S.) asked the hunter to free the deer so that she could go and feed her little baby deer who were very hungry. Imam Reza (A.S.) also told the hunter that once the deer had fed her babies she would come back. The hunter allowed the deer to go because Holy Imam (A.S.) had told him to, but he did not think the deer will come back. But Imam Reza (A.S.) waited with the hunter until the deer returned with her young ones. The hunter was amazed on witnessing this miraculous event and he set the deer free as a mark of respect for Imam Reza (A.S.). After this historical event Imam Reza (A.S.) became famous as Imam Zaamin(A.S.)”

Intriguing tales like these are the building blocks of religion in general, Islam in particular, and the primary reason for its continued attractiveness. Even though many such tales are counterintuitive, they seem to be inspiring to true devotees who accept them by faith. I asked my highly religious cousin who was with me about the authenticity of that unbelievable story of the asylum-seeking dog. He told me that incidents like that happen occasionally in the holy shrine of Imam Reza. He informed me that there is even a farm in the city of Mashhad where the animals that have sought sanctuary in the holy shrine, and were saved by Imam Reza, are taken and cared for until they die.

Apparently, stories like this are not unique to Muslims. People of various faiths are fascinated by such anecdotes because they are really appealing to the naïve believers. The odd stories spread swiftly around the globe, especially in this age of personal computers and the Internet. You may wonder how persuasive they are to ordinary people and how many act upon them. People are fascinated by these kinds of stories because they are strange and often contain what believers think are a lesson in morality, or they are just plainly sensational. These stories are usually the topic of daily discussion for Muslim families. They hear them so frequently that they develop a kind of susceptibility to them and they may in fact be brainwashed by them.

Modern scientific researchers tell us that religion survives through cultural evolution which is the transmission of cultural elements such as stories, ideas, thoughts, practices, and rituals through repetition and communication. While biological evolution occurs genetically, cultural evolution takes place through memes. I would define meme as a unit of cultural elements. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that human beings are designed by natural selection to be enthralled by outlandish things. The mental credulity that results from this human bias goes back to the dawn of social living. Generation after generation of human beings have been accepting some ideas and beliefs and rejecting others. The ideas and beliefs that are persistently accepted certainly have some selective advantages while the ones rejected have none. It is like the game of the survival of the fittest; only the beliefs with more selective advantages will endure. So the obvious question that this article tries to answer is what kinds of memes have more selective advantages and, therefore, are favored by the human mind?

Without a doubt, religious memes are very popular and everlasting. People seem to have been fascinated by them throughout human history, and have been holding on to them and passing them down to others persistently. It seems that our mind is genetically prepared to accept religious memes because of their numerous selective advantages. Religious researchers have offered plenty of explanations as to why religious memes are so well-liked, why people keep holding on to them, and what kind of selective advantages are of benefit.

To begin with, human beings are genetically predisposed to be awestruck by uncommon stories whether they are related to religion or not. Some recent examples are: octomom, balloon boy, an image of Jesus on a concrete wall, or the image of the Virgin Mary on a tortilla. That is because ordinary things have already been absorbed by our brain and we have become uninterested in them. Not many days after Khomeini (the grand ayatollah who installed Islamic government in Iran) returned to Iran from France, a rumor circulated in Iran that some followers had seen his picture on the surface of the moon! Of course that story wasn’t true; however, it gathered momentum and travelled across the country rapidly.

Although our fascination with such imaginary incidents seems to be short-lived, some of them leave a lasting mark on society. Many ancient religious stories are timeless, they last forever and will be passed on to the next generation through repetition wrapped in the cover of faith and sacredness. One such example is the story of the sighting of the Shia (one of the two main branches of Islam) twelfth hidden Imam in a place on the outskirts of the city of Qom, Iran called Jamkaran. We know that this cannot be factual; however, the love affair with this story is insanely insatiable. Every Thursday night a huge crowd of pilgrims gathers at this place to pray and to drop into a shallow well at the site a written request to the hidden Imam asking for help, salvation, forgiveness, and guidance.

Religious memes are not economically consequential; you do not lose anything if they are wrong or ineffective. Pious people, for example, always pray regardless of whether it works or not. If prayer happens to work, the religious memes will be reinforced and perpetuated; if not, there are always convincing explanations for their failure. For example, Muslims believe that if there is a severe drought, they can pray together, Namaaz Istisqa, and after which it should start raining. But what happens if there is no rain? Do you think that mullahs are going to give up or allow you to question the effectiveness of prayers, of course not. They will most likely blame the supplicants for not praying wholeheartedly and in pure faith or for not performing the ritual correctly.

According to a Shia' hadith, the corpse of a martyr will remain fresh and intact after it is buried and it will never decompose. Has there been any proof to this claim like exhumation of a martyr’s body to test its validity? And what would happen if the test failed? Most religious memes also withstand examination because they are like a one way street. Consider the story of heaven and hell. No one has actually returned to this world after his or her death to tell us whether there is, in fact, a heaven or a hell. Nonetheless, mullahs speak of heaven and hell so confidently one would think they had died and returned to this world to tell us about their firsthand observations.

It seems that religious memes stimulate good-feelings; people feel relieved when they pray and vindicated when they repent. Some memes such as circumcision supposedly confer medical benefits. Circumcision is required by Islam and Judaism. Mullahs also say that praying five times a day not only helps Muslims to exercise physically but also helps them to become disciplined. Even though such rituals may have medical benefits, medical benefit is not the primary reason why they are recommended. Circumcision, for example, is required because it is a sign of belonging and demonstrates that a believer is in fact a member of the community of “chosen people.” Similarly, the medical benefit derived from physical exercise is not the reason why Muslims are required to pray five times a day.

Religious memes confer distinctiveness. Muslims believe, for instance, that Islam is the final religion and that its prophet was the last messenger of God whose mission was to complete all previous religions. They also believe they are the chosen people, brothers and sisters and the members of the Islamic umma (community), the ones who are saved and go to heaven. Shia Muslims especially believe that they will ultimately dominate the world after the hidden imam returns to earth. Religious memes perpetuate themselves because some religions counsel believers to engage only in intra-community relationships. For example, according to Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim women are not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man under any circumstances, and the marriage of a Muslim man to a non-Muslim woman is conditional. Consequently, not only are the religious memes transferred more easily to offspring when both parents belong to the same faith, they are also more easily perpetuated.

Religious memes are often exploited to create or to enforce religious identity, or to strengthen nationalism, in which case they are also protected by religious authorities. Under such circumstances, religious beliefs are hard to contest and impossible to repudiate because those who do so will face reprisal or even serious criminal charges. This is the situation under the Islamic government in Iran.

According to some evolutionary psychologists, human beings have genes that make us especially vulnerable to group pressure. When we started living together in very small groups, individual survival was dependent on group support for food, shelter, and companionship. This is still the case, especially in societies in which people have very close relationships with each other. The chance of survival is very low, or non-existed, for those who are alienated or contest the prevailing norms. Consequently, human beings will develop a bias toward conformity, conformity to the popular cultural memes, especially those related to religion.

Practices such as male Muslims growing beards, or persons having a dark mark on the forehead as a sign of piety, or Sunni Muslims praying while keeping both hands on the chest are all indications that the human mind is indeed conformist. Individuals crave attention and often resort to anomalous behaviors to fulfill this craving. So the majority of the beard growing, chest beating, mourning, and forehead cutting (kama zani) are for for the sake of getting attention and bowing to the snobbish mentality of the crowd.

In summary, while genes are the kernel of spirituality, what individuals believe in is a function of culture. Cultural evolution occurs as a result of repetition and transmission of memes. Religion is the outward expression of spirituality. One way to understand the birth and the survival of religion is to draw a parallel between biological evolution and cultural evolution.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that religion is the product of memes. Memes are the units of cultural ideas developed by the human mind and are transmitted through various means of communication from one person to another and from one generation to the next. Memes are the attributes of human beings only; no other creature is intelligent enough for elaborate communications, and hence for transfer of memes. While there is a limit to the proliferation of genes, there is no such limitation when it comes to the duplication and dissemination of memes. And while the genetic evolution is very slow, memes can emerge, change, and spread easily and quickly. Like genes, memes can be positive or negative. The same can be said of religion.


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Ari Siletz

Good article, Varjavand

by Ari Siletz on

At the very least it advocates that religion itself is a legitimate object of scientific study.


Though our scientific understanding of religion is still very limited, it has been put to use in proposing a hypothetical solution to a real problem. You may know of the study commissioned by the US department of nuclear waste managment as to how to warn humans tens of thousands of years from now that a certain area is contaminated. One paper, by Thomas Sebeok suggested starting an artificial religion with rituals that encoded the warning in the form of myths perpetuated by a priesthood. Sebeok argues that religious rituals (averbal memes, in the context of your article, though Sebeokdoesn't get into designing a "selective advantage" in these artificial myths) demonstrably outlast the lifetimes of written communication understandable to future generations.  

Omid Parsi

Religion is about having your cake and eating it too ...

by Omid Parsi on

The essence of religion is raw filthy greed: People cannot suffice to live one life, they want a guaranteed IOU for a permanent afterlife of pleasure and luxury! So they can live their present life in ignorance and without a purpose, while funneling the blame for all their failings, not on themselves and their inability to cope with the forces of nature, but on something else.

Rather than going gaa-gaa at the sight of miserable pilgrims by the shrine of Imam Reza, a noble thinking person would be disgusted by sheer display of ignorance and its innate propensity towards intolerance and horrid violence. 

The evil side of this unbridled greed is that the same people believe they have "ineliable" rights to every fruit of rational thinking and modern civilization, such as theft of nuclear technology (so they can potentially annihilate the non-believers in a fit of holy sadism!)

It is about time the rational world made sure the "faithful" get to live the most "secluded" and "austere" of lives so as their insanity will never have the power to take all of us back to stone age... 


Imam Reza is cool! He was a scientist too & defined trig circle!

by Anonymouse on

Everything is sacred.