Religion’s inevitable victory
- Published on 19 February 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Religion in the West is waning. The percentage of people who say they have no religious affiliation is at an all-time high and shows no signs of turning around soon. Is religion doomed to extinction? Will future generations wonder how anyone could possibly have been sincerely religious? Maybe not. Research by Robert Rowthorn (Cambridge University) actually indicates that it's secularism that may fade out of existence: for evolutionary reasons, religion will inevitably take over the world.
Rowthorn theorizes that genes can impact a person’s religiosity. For him, both biology and culture play a role in determining the probability of a person becoming religious. From this starting point, he notes that religious people as a whole have more children than non-religious people. Putting these two pieces together, Rowthorn concludes that pro-religiosity genes benefit from the cultural tendency of religious people to have more children. That is, being religious increases the likelihood of having an above-average number of offspring and thus above-average evolutionary success.
Rowthorn provides statistical data to support his theory. Citing the World Values Survey, a survey encompassing 82 countries, he found that adults who attend religious services once a week or more averaged 2.5 children, adults who attend religious services once a month averaged 2.01 children, while those who never attend religious service averaged only 1.67 children. Furthermore, highly conservative religious groups (e.g., the Amish) average over four times more children than secular groups. Religion does seem to lead to an evolutionary advantage (though Rowthorn insists that the correlation between religiosity and number of children is cultural rather than biological).
As a result, religion’s dominance appears inevitable. Even if many people who reject their parents’ religion and become secular have children, their children will still carry the religiosity genes of their grandparents. Children who actually become religious themselves will in turn have more children than their brothers and sisters, further passing along the religiosity gene. Obviously, these children may keep to the secularism of their parents, but if the religious gene expresses itself, they may very well follow in the footsteps of their grandparents rather than their parents. To be clear, genetic disposition is just that, a disposition. No child is fated to become religious, regardless of genes and environment, but both genes and environment factor into every child’s final religious orientation.
In any case, Rowthorn’s point is that, assuming culturally that the rejection of religion is high, the tendency of religious people to reproduce at high rates will still more than compensate for this growth in secularism and religiosity overall. Nothing stands in religion’s way. Of course, not everyone will be religious, but nearly everyone will carry the genes that will predispose their children to be religious. So, while secularists will likely always exist, they lack the evolutionary edge of religionists and will likely forever remain a minority, if not wane in number themselves.
Rowthorn’s research provides an example of how culture can act as a feedback mechanism for evolution. The cultural effect of religion is that it correlates with its adherents having more children. Thus for cultural reasons a gene propagates quite successfully.
Rowthorn’s research also indicates that religion is not going away anytime soon (if at all). Those who keep praying for the end of religion may be waiting in vain. Perhaps they should try to understand religion instead. Who knows? Their own children may be devoutly religious.
For more, see “ Model predicts 'religiosity gene' will dominate society” in PhysOrg and Rowthorn’s research.