Day 062 - Domesticated religion

Submitted by Sam on 22 July, 2011 - 01:16

Dairy cattle are our products, crafted through generations of selective breeding for very specific purposes. Through this process of domestication the cattle's genes have come to serve our needs over those of the cattle themselves, creating cattle optimized for us and entirely reliant on our stewardship. Other animals, like barn swallows, pigeons and squirrels, haven't been deliberately domesticated but have evolved a similar kind of dependency, evolving by natural selection to exploit the human environment and live in our close proximity. Daniel Dennett has suggested that religion may have evolved in an analogous manner.

Organized religions, like domesticated cows, are brilliantly designed products with a long evolutionary history. In Dennett's speculation, today's organized religions are 'domesticated' descendents of 'wild' folk religion, much as cows were domesticated from aurochs, their wild ancestor. In their wild form, religious memes existed as superstitions which existed only to make more of themselves, just as aurochs existed to serve the biological imperative of making more aurochs. These wild memes insensibly got themselves domesticated, acquiring stewards willing to devote their lives to helping them flourish; followers of domesticated religion consciously strive to aid their propagation. Just as domesticated animals received a tremendous fitness boost (as measured by their relative global biomass) through domestication, so religious memes prospered by evolving adaptations which produced willing and conscious stewards of them. These adaptations include many individual memes which come together to create a mutually supportive and self-reinforcing complex, making up the entire Catholic church, for example.

Whilst this view of the evolution of religion has been criticized by atheist-turned-theologian Alistair McGrath, who has cautioned that Dennett's arguments are wholly speculative, lacking a scientifically sound body of evidence, Dennett has countered that the purpose of his theory is to explore the question of what religions are and where they came from, rather than provide a definitive answer to it. Whatever they are, they are brilliantly designed, and the more we can understand their design (through whatever theoretical lenses possible), the more we might be able to revise and optimize this design, just as we have done with dairy cows.

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