The evolutionary function of belief
Created | Updated May 24, 2006
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." - Voltaire
A couple of entries in this university project, A Critique of Belief and Musings on a theme of Belief, look at what we mean by the word 'belief'.
For the purposes of this particular entry the word 'belief' is taken to mean 'inspired belief': belief in a god, belief in a cause, belief in numinescence, belief in something greater than the believer. These days it is sometimes called a 'vision' (companies establish their vision, and then work out mission statements).
A people, united in a cause
When you read about one of the greatest achievements of the last century, putting man on the moon, you discover that the people leading and working in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Missions were inspired by Kennedy's vision. Their imaginations were grabbed, and their dedication was far greater as a result. Thatcher had a vision for how she wanted Britain to be. Ghandi inspired half a billion people in British India and ended Biritish Colonialism. The inspiration that Mandela gave to South Africans enabled them to overthrew a regime while he was out of the game, and locked in jail. These visions inspired others to go above and beyond the call of duty and to achieve far more, in a focussed direction, than they would or could have achieved otherwise.
These are deliberately secular examples, but if you look around you, you will see the same degree of achievement brought about by inspired belief throughout history and alive and well in the present day.
Inspirational beliefs generate the ability to go the extra mile, to put in the extra hours, that you will be saved for a purpose, that you have a mission. In The Blues Brothers Jake and Elmore are 'on a mission from God'. The film pastiches the concept, but the concept is there to be pastiched. *
In a group, shared beliefs mean that the group will act more cohesively, with less debate and delay, and will individually go the extra mile. Hitler generated the third reich by creating a national belief in a national destiny while Chamberlain was faffing around with an umbrella.
We have seen that it is easy to find examples of leaders who are also believers. Interestingly, it is much harder to find examples of inspiring leaders who are NOT believers. Diana, Princess of Wales is one; but her fame came from the way in which she used her position, and she inspired us because of our need to believe in her, not because of her belief in anything in particular. In other words she was an icon, not a visionary.
Visionaries are dangerous people, because their visions make them powerful.
The power of belief is important for survival on a personal level too.
In the 1950s Viktor Frankle used to give talks to American audiences about his experiences in the concentration camps1. He would open his talks by thanking his audience for coming to hear him. They took this to be a
speaker's standard courteous introduction. The then said 'I want to thank you for saving my life'.
One of the things which had sustained Frankle for two and a half years in the concentration camps was his belief that he could and would testify to what had happened in them. He imagined talking to the audiences who came to hear him speak a decade later. They - or rather his belief in them - had saved his life.
Frankle's experience is eloquent, but there are countless records of individuals going through extreme experiences where survival was optional, who say that it was their faith or their vision of the future that sustained them. One Indian Army officer who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese attributed his survival to having his fortune told in the 1930s by an Indian in a bazaar. The fortune-teller said that he would die when he was 80. He did in fact die 6 weeks before his 80th birthday, some 50 years after the surrender of the Japanese.
From these two examples we see that it is not the believer's deity that saves them, but their belief. Jesus Christ ascribed his miracles to the belief of those healed. 'He said to her, "Daughter, your faith2 has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."'3
Pray, or prey?
The only way that something as bizzare and universal as the human need for something to believe4 could have arisen is in evolutionary response to environmental pressures *.
We need to be clear about how evolutionary pressures shape a species in order to look at how they created the need for belief. All the plants and animals that have ever existed on this planet represent that species' best adaption to the environment they live in. Sometimes they represent the only possible adaption to that environment. The individuals who deal with the challenges of their environment the best have the edge. For example, zebras are stripey because the more invisible a zebra is, the less likely it is to be seen by lions. Albino zebras do not survive because they get eaten before they can breed.
So far so simple. But this evolutionary pressure is exerted on the behaviour of a species too. Wolves hunt in packs and impose limitations on the fertility of their females, because there is not enough game in their habitats to support a high ratio of young to adults in a pack, or to support individuals hunting for a litter.
With zebras and wolves it is easy to see cause and effect, and to balance them up on either side of the scales. But it is much harder for us to look at ourselves as a species, and harder still to consider abstractions as something which can be selected for genetically.
But the fact remains that if most members of a species have a particular characteristic, then that characteristic must have served that species well in the past.
We have already seen how inspired belief has served the individuals and groups which make up the human species very well indeed.
Our belief in the divine does not show that we are human. Our belief in the divine shows that we are animals.
Note: This is part of the University Project on Belief
argues that if he does do so, then one of the ways in which he does is to use a mechanistic process.3Mark 5:344And the equally universal human ability to believe the most rediculous tosh