Prominent skeptic: Religion may be adaptive after all

In the nine years since the radical Islamist terrorist attacks on the U.S. of September 11th, 2001, plenty of scholars and researchers have trained their lenses on the phenomenon of religion. In the ensuing explosion of public and academic discourse, some of the loudest voices have asserted that religious belief is a danger, an evolutionary error that is of no benefit – or even harmful. Recently, however, evidence has begun to mount that religious practice may be beneficial for those who undertake it, leading some researchers to assert that religion is an evolutionary adaptation in itself. In a testament to the flexibility and adaptiveness of science, one of the English-speaking world’s most fervent opponents of religion has surveyed the evidence and converted – not to religion, but to the belief that religion can be evolutionarily, and socially, valuable.

A former parapsychology researcher, British native Susan Blackmore became skeptical of the existence of ESP and other paranormal phenomena after obtaining her Ph.D. in the field and consistently obtaining discouraging results in her experiments (see here for her personal account of this transformation). Shifting her academic focus to memetics (the study of theoretical units of cultural evolution called memes) and consciousness, Blackmore contributed articles to skeptical publications, at one point winning an award from a skeptics’ organization for her work. Along with other public intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, she also gave lectures and wrote popular opinion pieces characterizing religion as “a virus of the mind:” a program that runs ruthlessly through human cultures, using individual people to replicate.

However, after attending a recent conference in Bristol, England, on “Explaining Religion,” Blackmore seemingly underwent a change of heart.

“(I)t seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as – viruses of the mind’ may have had its day,” Blackmore recently wrote in the UK newspaper The Guardian. The evidence that changed her mind? German religion professor Michael Blume’s carefully researched assertion that religion is, in actuality, adaptive – as evidenced by the fact that, worldwide, religious believers appear to have more children. Further driving home the point was the fact that, according to some research, religion on the whole makes people both happier and healthier (see article link in the opening paragraph).

While in reality religion is a complex phenomenon that helps some people, harms others, and cannot be encapsulated in a single theory, the case that religious belief provides at least some measurable evolutionary benefit is convincing more and more thinkers to examine the subject more closely. In an age that has been marked by polemics and unfortunate simplifications, the willingness of one public intellectual to alter her opinion is testament to the progress of evidence that is a hallmark of science – and an example of the humility that makes that progress possible.

See here for Blackmore’s article in The Guardian.

Click here to see a list of articles on the evolutionary benefits of religion, compiled by Michael Blume.

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