A new study finds that religion may have evolved as a by-product of non-religious, cognitive processes, dispelling a competing theory that religion served as an adaptation to help unrelated individuals cooperate.
The findings, published Monday in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggests that people’s gut instinct for what is right and wrong operates independently of religious upbringing.
Harvard psychology professor Marc D. Hauser, who co-authored the study, argues that from an evolutionary perspective, cognitive mechanisms involved in moral decision-making precede organized religion.
“Morality is far more ancient than religion,” Hauser said. “Most, if not all, of the psychological ingredients that enter into religion originally evolved to solve more general problems of social interaction.”
Hauser claimed the findings help explain recent studies indicating that people’s moral intuitions vary little across different religions.
To illustrate the universality of certain moral intuitions, Hauser presented two hypothetical options for saving a group of seven people in a closed room—pressing a button to divert poisonous gas from the room or pushing a person into a ventilation shaft to stop the gas from reaching the room.
“Far fewer people would say [the latter] is permissible, regardless of religious background,” Hauser said.
In cases of moral judgment that fall outside the norm—martyrdom, for instance—Hauser and co-author Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies propose that religion, much like legal institutions, exerts its own pressure on people’s moral judgments after it emerged from natural cognitive processes.
Though Hauser said he anticipates negative reaction to his apparent down-playing of religion’s significance, the study’s purpose was not to cheapen religion.
“To those who find meaning in religious experience, I have nothing either positive or negative to say,” he said.
Hauser and Pyysiäinen add that their findings are not meant to explain religion, but to deny the claim that “all aspects of religion emerged at once at some point in history.”