Shankar Vedantam hosts NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, which is generally fascinating and insightful. However, once in a while a topic stretches credulity and falls flat. Such was the case with the May 6, 2019 Hidden Brain podcast, “Where Does Religion Come From?” Vedantam interviews Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. Shariff studies religion from a psychological point of view, an increasingly popular academic area of interest known as the cognitive science of religion (CSR).
When taking on a weighty topic like CSR, it’s critical to establish some ground rules. For example, is religion solely a cultural invention or does is have an evolved, inherited component? Academics who study this fall into opposing camps. There is no consensus if there is an inborn propensity to religious behavior or if it is a byproduct of our large, complex brain. Or as Shariff proposes, religion benefits humanity by enhancing social cohesion and cooperation. Where your bias on this issue lies goes a long way to determining where you fall along this spectrum of possibilities.
Shariff starts off by correctly pointing out that humans evolved in tribes of between 50 and 150 people. So far, so good. It quickly starts going downhill when he states that in these tribal settings, everybody knows each other, so cooperation is guaranteed because tribespeople can’t cheat on each other without consequences and retribution. Once human social groups grew beyond tribal numbers due to the advent of agriculture about 11,000 years ago, Shariff says, far beyond the ability of people to know all their neighbors, people needed religion in the form of a supernatural punishing god to enforce social behavior. Religion arose to enforce social cohesion, he claims.