In one of the earliest posts on this blog, I mentioned the model common in 19th and early 20th century academic study of religion - a kind of naive evolutionary model.
Originally, religions started out similar to those of the most 'primitive' peoples, after which they evolved into increasingly superior forms of religion: polytheism, henotheism, legalist monotheism, etc etc. Oftentimes, the hierarchy was pretty obviously something along the lines of primitive peoples → early civilized peoples ( → hindus?) → greeks → jews → Christians, and sometimes even → protestants. (I would genuinely not be surprised if some early 20th century scholar even had → anglicans or → lutherans in there as a final step, although not explicitly by that name, I would expect them to have used obfuscating terminology such as "national liturgical monotheism with a trinity", so as to avoid being too obvious about what they were trying to go for, and some bogus justification for why having the king as the head of the church is superior to either the pope or no head of the church at all.)
Darwin did us a great favor, but evolution was not well understood by those who adopted it as a model either in or outside of biology for about a century. Most seem to have been convinced that evolution is a progress towards objectively superior and that evolution explains the appearance of more intelligent species, more powerful societies, better races, better religions, etc. They understood fitter as objectively and unquestionably superior. A great testament to how good a model evolution is, is that even though most who worked with it were misinterpreting it, they still got a lot of things right. However, these bad understandings of it also had some very significant unfortunate consequences.
The sources Acharya relies on are not sources that adhere to the mistaken view - that much must be granted. However, the intellectual baseline against which they work was that view, and their reaction is generally not the cleverest. If you work under the assumption that a mistaken view must be countered by the exact opposite view (but retain the same conceptual apparatus - with ideas like 'superior', etc), you will have a bad time.
Robert Tulip, at Murdock's forum freethoughtnation, responded to my mentioning the flaws of the outdated model thus:
Miekko notes that conventional Christianity in the 19th century argued for social evolution of religion from animism up to monotheism. But Miekko, perhaps because his expertise is in computer science rather than comparative mythology, appears oblivious to the fact that the authors Acharya quotes, especially Massey, argue strongly against this conventional evolutionary model of religious culture, and in fact see Christianity as a degradation from an earlier higher culture. So Meikko’s stated reason to ignore Acharya’s use of older scholarship is completely wrong and irrelevant. This sort of ad hominem is just comical - ‘don’t read Massey because he lived at a time when other people believed dogmatic errors.’
Massey would have been revolutionary had he realized there's a better option than just reversing the idea of progressive improvement on some absolute scale. Yes, criticizing the prevailing model at the time was justified - in fact, most evolutionary models of the time really suffered from intellectual shortcomings of the time. However, one model being wrong does not make every alternative view right!
I will attempt to describe a more modern view of evolution - where a population of organisms adapts the cards it has been dealt in response to its environment (or changes in the environment) through natural selection. I will then describe analogously a similar model for religions. This model is a great improvement over both Massey's and his opponents - neither can we or do we need to posit that Christianity is superior to Judaism, which in turn is superior to paganism, nor do we need to posit that Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism are degenerate forms of a superior ancient religion. The conclusion will be that inferiority or superiority are not very useful concepts (I will grant that some very remarkable cases do justify being considered inferior, such as suicide cults), but that religions over times have changed due to environmental (including the memetic/intellectual, political and natural environments) pressures, and adapted to fill their niches. Religions have different pressures on them than biological life does: misunderstanding and reinterpretation are two obvious ways for mutation to be introduced, ...
Great minds of the 19th and early 20th century thought and even to this day some idiots think that evolution provides a reasonable way of classifying, say, humans into groups by comparing how 'primitive' or 'advanced' we are. There are also many who believe mankind is on the verge of some 'evolutionary step' - and this is based on the dumb notion that evolution somehow is predetermined or that it has some intended end-point and that this somehow happens in huge leaps - that there is an objectively measurable path from inferior to superior, and that all organisms either ascend this scale or flunk out and remain at their inferior step on the ladder.
Evolution has one main effect over time: favoring, over time, traits that benefit the reproduction and survival of populations in the environment they finds themselves in. This is, of course, a kind of improvement, but the improvement is not an improvement towards some kind of objectively universally superior class, but towards just being improving chances of survival and reproduction in a given environment.
Before trying to establish an evolutionary model with regard to religions, let us consider what an 'ultimately fit life form' would be, in terms of evolutionary fitness:
- it would live and procreate with a minimal waste of resources
- it would be simple - the fewer the involved components, the less the risk of malfunction during operation, or of mistaken copies in reproduction
- it would procreate quicker than any other possible set of molecules
- when procreating, it would create accurate reproductions of itself
- it would have these properties in all circumstances where life can exist at all
- it would not easily be killed by any processes
Nothing guarantees that all these can even be achieved by one single life-form, and some may actually be impossible to combine with others - I find speed of reproduction and precision unlikely to have any really good combinations, likewise
Now, let us consider religions: religions are an artefact of human intellectual life. As such, we first need to think about the manners in which a religion is transmitted from one adherent or generation of adherents to the next, as well as the implications this system has.
Humans themselves are results of biological evolution, which gave rise to neural networks in our bodies (the brain). This thing is an embodiment of a relatively generalizeable pattern-matching algorithm (and therefore also a kind of memory storage thing), and it is fairly useful to have one. Alas, neural networks are not particularly good at distinguishing coincidences from correlations. This means a non-pattern may be identified as a bona-fide pattern. Another thing that can happen is that a complicated pattern is not recognized as one at all.
Further, evolution created language, which is a way for one neural network to exchange relatively complicated information with others, in a somewhat insecure manner:
The protocol by which the information is transferred is not perfect, it is not fixed, it takes crazy effort to ensure that both parties in an act of communication have the exact same implementation of the protocol, there is no way of being entirely sure that what is being communicated is actually received, parsed or stored perfectly in the receiving brain anyway, mostly because the channel over which the information is transferred as well as the organ that stores it are noisy, complicated things, and the basic structure of neural networks has some flaws in the first place.
Humans started telling stories and behaving in ritualized manners. The stories that were easy to pass around and remember got reproduced, as were the stories that inspired people to retell them often enough for them to be remembered. The stories that they felt were boring or not awe-inspiring enough or irrelevant or had some other flaw working against them did not reproduce as efficiently. The rituals probably went through a similar evolution, and soon enough, they also got a symbiotic relationship - this is something Dawkins and Harris have explained in their books fairly convincingly.
Dawkins seems to think religion mainly is a memetic parasite - a symbiosis of memes (a symmemesis?) that uses us as a host. I would suggest religion often actually forms a symbiosis with us (a symbiomemesis?) - although it may be difficult to measure whether some behavior or belief is beneficial or not, unless the results are very obvious. The results may also be different under different circumstances - a belief or behavior that was beneficial in the American midwest 2000 years ago may not have been very beneficial in Rome at the same time.
Not only stories and rituals evolve like this, though, but also rules. Rules may have an even greater impact on life - a rule that strengthens a community or increases the number of offspring, improves chances of offspring survival, reduces likelihood of cultural assimilation, etc, etc is more likely to survive than one that doesn't - and a community that has such a rule is more likely to prosper or at least survive as a distinct community than one without. Here we are not talking about which community is superior, but which ones are likely to survive, or even prosper in some environment. Of course, the effects of a rule may not be immediately obvious, and in some of the more complicated rule-complexes - say, orthodox Judaism - the effects of the hundreds of rules probably are difficult to assess. Some such rule systems also may not work in isolation - Judaism as the rabbis devised it has a lot of things that are downright meaningless unless there are other religions and ethnicities around.
I will present a list of religious rules in orthodox Judaism that may have contributed to Judaism surviving quite a long time in adverse conditions:
- Sabbath vs. Eruv: increases the likelihood that observant Jews live close together
The eruv is a legal fiction, whereby the idea of domain is changed under sabbath. In a place without an eruv, carrying non-clothing articles over the borders of your own premises is not permitted, hence bringing a book or anything to the synagogue, for instance, is forbidden. In a place with an eruv, life on the sabbath is much easier. Observant orthodox Jews prefer living in places with eruvs over places without it for this reason.
- Kosher: shechita makes it likely that observant Jews will move close to other observant Jews, and also channels some of the money of the community back into the community, and creates a professional class of kosher butchers, creating employment in the community.
- the rules of tefillin, mezuzot, torah scrolls, etc: channels money back into the community, also creates a professional class of scribes that preserve certain traditions and also are likely to invest time and effort into some religious-intellectual pursuits, creating some religion-oriented employment in the community.
Tefillin are small boxes containing small portions of Torah written in adherence to strict scribal rules, and used in daily prayer. The mezuzah (literally 'door-post') is a small portion of Torah written in adherence to similar rules, that is affixed to the door post, often in an ornamental container. Every synagogue should have Torah scrolls to use in Sabbath and Wednesday services. Scribal work on one takes quite some time. Further, scribes often produce the ketubah, the often ornamental and beautiful marriage contract a couple are supposed to sign when getting married. Further, the mezuzah and tefillin parchments need to be maintained - if letters start flaking off they may have to be rewritten or the entire parchment replaced, the tefillin boxes may have to be repaired, the ketubah may need similar maintenance, etc. Similar maintenance applies to the Torah scrolls - whose quality is continually investigated during the weekly readings of the Torah portions.
- The huge ruleset in general and the perception that the rules are important create some employment in the community, although it may be seen in terms of charity to students of torah rather than as employment per se.
There are several traditions of giving charity to poor students of Torah, and such. Although not employment as such, it probably has given some poor Jewish men at times the opportunity to attain enough of an education to achieve higher social standing in the Jewish community, through intellectual pursuits. Employment as rabbis may even have been possible for some of them.
- payos, kippos, clothing styles, various rules that may set Jews slightly at odds with surrounding non-Jews: creates a slight us-vs-them feeling on both sides of the dividing line, which increases the likelihood of endogamy and other behavioral patterns that strengthen the likelihood for community survival. On the other hand, it increases the likelihood for the community to come to a violent end - but most of the time, the benefits have been greater than the risks.
- sabbath: at times probably has reduced the chances for observant jews of obtaining employment outside of the community, thus knitting the community tighter by increasing the chance that Jewish employers have had potential employees from their own community, and that Jewish seakers of employment have found Jewish employers.
Religions are the result of their context - the external and internal challenges that the community meets, the solutions that the previous challenges have caused to emerge (which may become new internal challenges!), and so on.
Let us go back to the thought experiment about a perfect life form - as the thought experiment goes on. The perfect religion, of course, would have the following properties:
- it would be true
- it would procreate efficiently (easy to convince new adherents to join, easy to learn, increases likelihood for offspring (who easily can be indoctrinated with what happens, in this case, to be true)
- it would convince people who previously held different opinions
- it would resist mutation (difficult to misunderstand, applicable in sufficiently diverse conditions that the environment will not cause central parts of it to have to change - if your religion considers the eating of a specific kind of herb important, tough titties if the herb goes extinct or you live somewhere the herb cannot grow or your whole ethnicity that just converted to the religion are lethally allergic to it, any such problem will cause some mutation. )
It seems unlikely such a religion can exist. But religions can satisfy some of these demands. Let's first throw out the truth-requirement. If the religion per se permits wide variation, resisting mutation may not be a requirement at all - most mutations are likely to hit on already occurring versions. Mutation may also adjust how other mutations are counteracted or embraced. Whether evangelism is a necessary feature varies: most religions that do not evangelize do remain small (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Druze, Sikhism etc), some religions that do evangelize are not very good at it, some religions that do not proselytize much are large - Hinduism.
However, all religions are somewhat accidental compilations of behavior-patterns, doctrines, and ideas. So were the religions of the far past, as are the religions of the present. The belief that some religion of the far past was superior to later religions is superfluous - probably, throughout time, all religions have been results of beliefs and behaviors adapting to circumstances, as well as resulting from circumstances, and it is very arrogant and dumb to think that we can establish which of these religions was the best at coping with its circumstances.
What really forces us to commit Massey's model to the garbage heap, though, is the lack of genuine evidence for such a 'superior proto-religion'. If all we have in favour of a hypothesis is untenable conjecture in combination with a mistaken model, Occam's razor barely needs be invoked.
 Robert Tulip, forum post at freethoughtnation.com, http://freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=26962#p26962 retrieved at April 13th, 2013.