The Survival Value of Religion: The Good News and the Bad News

According to New Scientist (January 28-February 3, 2006), “The study of belief in all its forms has become a very hot topic” (page 29). That statement alone is not remarkable; but the fact that New Scientist is making it is. Because science, as New Scientist acknowledges, has been reluctant to take religion seriously as a topic worthy of study. In that issue, Robin Dunbar, Alison Motluck, and Clare Wilson provide three different approaches to the topic in the articles “We Believe,” page 30, “Particles of Faith,” page 34, and “Glad to be Gullible,” page 37. The Atlantic got in on the act in the December 2005 issue with their cover story “Is God An Accident?” by Paul Bloom. And just yesterday (February 19, 2006), The New York Times reviewed Daniel Dennett”s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

I guess this scientific interest should not be surprising, but it is, given science’s perverse resistance to taking religion seriously in a world which is being torn apart by religion. It is like the Bush administration’s denial of global warming. Given the very dangerous state of the world right now resulting from a sharp right turn toward religious fundamentalism (both Christian and Islamic), however, even scientists are beginning to realize that religion when it is radicalized is a force which is as real, as powerful, and as potentially dangerous as a hurricane. At any rate, I am glad the discussion is happening and this essay is my contribution to the conversation. It addresses the origins of religion, the relationship between religion and survival, the power of religion, and the difficulties of letting go ” even when religion has become a destructive force.

The Survival Value of Religion: An Overview

The Life Force is the most powerful force in Nature.
It fuels the drive to survive, energizing all life.

In non-human animals, the Life Force is expressed through survival instincts.
Survival instincts join fundamental drives to the behaviors which express and satisfy these drives. Both the drive and the behavior are formed by the interplay between external surroundings and internal biological needs.

In the human animal, survival instincts have been split apart. Although we come pre-loaded with a full set of biological drives (they make up what Jung called the archetypes of the collective unconscious), the behaviors required to satisfy these drives have been erased. Therefore, they must be provided by some extrinsic, cultural, source. Otherwise, the human animal would be, in the words of Clifford Geertz “a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity.” (See below.)

It is the thesis of this essay that religion is the extrinsic cultural source which provides culture-specific behavioral instructions through the medium of religious symbols. These symbols (for mother or father or a food source or a mating ritual) are an outward and visible form of an inward and biological need.

The symbol bonds with the drive, allowing the Life Force to flow from the drive into the symbol and from the symbol to the drive, closing the energy circuit and giving the symbol (think God the Father; God the Creator) the power of the Life Force — with the caveat, of course, that the behavioral instructions carried by the symbol actually work, that they provide instructions which will promote human survival within a given physical and social environment.

With the evolutionary turn which erased the inborn genetic behavioral instructions came the gain of a new capacity and a new drive ” the capacity to create symbols carrying useful instructions and the drive to seek out and load these symbols and their accompanying instructions into the human brain/psyche. In short, we became homo religio. After all, the word religion means “to tie back to”.

When it is alive and well and working properly, religion is an expression of the Life Force ” a natural phenomenon and essential for human survival. As long as a given religion is a “true expression” of the Life Force, as long as it promotes the health and well-being of individuals and society, it will flourish and be experienced as “good.” However, should the physical and social environment change so drastically that the information carried by a religious symbol no longer works, then Life goes out of the symbol. The symbol and the institutions which have grown up around them become “whited sepulchres” ” empty of meaning, leading to death instead of life. This is the situation with the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — today.

The Survival Value of Religion — The Long Form

Over the millennia of human existence, as human societies have proliferated over the face of the earth, we have developed a variety of different religions. The result has been a variety of different cultures with a variety of different value systems. Today, as in the past, each religion and culture believes it holds the key to ultimate truth and its value system offers the best strategy for societal success and survival. We believe in our value systems and will defend them to the death. As a result, what was once a mechanism for survival may turn out to be our undoing.

Today, the tectonic plates of multiple religions, multiple cultures and multiple value systems are crashing together, brought into close proximity by global markets, global media, and global travel. In the past, different cultures with their differing value systems existed at a safe remove from one another. Differing cultural customs were viewed as interesting or quaint — if they were known at all. We were, after all, worlds apart. But today, all that has changed. What was once exotic is now threatening — no matter what side of the fence you are on.

In an age which most of us had assumed was more secular than religious we find that cultures clash along religious lines — Jews warring with Muslims, Muslims warring with Christians, and conservative Christians warring with liberal Christians. Even in what was thought to be the secular West, lines are blurring between religion and politics, leading me to question whether we had ever really achieved a secular society. Our Western value system is as thoroughly infused by the Judeo Christian tradition as any Muslim theocracy. Although we claim a separation of church and state, the reality is that the laws and cultural customs of our land are, part and parcel, derived from the Judeo Christian tradition, specifically the Protestant tradition. Even the God atheists deny and agnostics doubt is the God of Abraham and Isaac, Matthew and Mark. But could it be any other way, given the religious foundation of human culture?

Cultural values, whatever claims are made for secularism, ultimately derive from religious teachings. A culture”s dominant religious symbol(s) is what gives a culture its shape and form, its unique character. Religion is what gives any set of cultural values integrity and cohesion. Cultural values are not merely a collection of unrelated ideas, but are a system of values organized around a central religious symbol such as God. The result is that whether or not a member of a given culture believes herself to be religious, her value system has a religious foundation ” a foundation which has its origins deep in our evolutionary past and which draws on powerful emotions associated with survival — which is why religion is such an inflammatory topic and why it should not be brought up at the dinner table.

Understanding the religious basis of cultural values is absolutely necessary if we are to get a handle on the serious nature of the current culture wars, which, if not contained, threaten to bring an end to the human experiment. But to do that, we must get a better understanding of the role religion has played in human evolutionary biology and, consequently, why it has such deep hooks in us. Once we become conscious of why religion has such power over us, we can decide whether or not we need religion any more ” and, if we do, what shape it should take: e.g., what approach to the understanding of ultimate reality would lead to peace instead of war. At any rate, the current takes on ultimate reality — whether they be God or Allah or YHWH — do not seem to be doing much to further the interests of human life on this planet.


Life. It is as miraculous in its coming into the world as it is mysterious in its passing. Life is both a state of being and a drive. This drive to survive, sometimes called the Life Force, is expressed through instinctual drives which keep members of the non-human animal world alive and kicking. But what about the human animal? How is the Life Force expressed in us?

In non-human animals, instincts are inborn behavioral programs detailing the activities necessary for survival, such as getting food, finding or building shelter, mating, and the care of young. Because instincts are species-wide, each member of an animal species is, in a manner of speaking, reading from the same page — a page which is stored in each and every brain and nervous system of each and every individual of the same species. Instincts, therefore, create an intra-species world of shared meaning and shared value. This means not only that animals know what to do but that they can do it together — just think of bees cooperating in the hive, each bee knowing its predetermined role or a flock of geese flying in perfect formation. In other words, birds of a feather, instinctively know how to flock together — and this knowing serves the interests of survival.

Instincts are not only species wide, they are habitat specific. They filter and sort, organize and evaluate reality, i.e., the environment the animal finds itself in, as to what is significant for survival and what is not. Those behaviors and things that promote survival have absolute value; those behaviors and things that are irrelevant to survival have no value at all. Animals, therefore, could be said to have an instinctive, collective, survival-based value system — a system which has evolved out of the interaction of the animal’s biological needs with the characteristics of the geographic place it calls home. There is, therefore, a direct relationship between survival and value. What the animal values is what gives it life.

Over time, Earth has evolved an incredible diversity of species whose instincts are fine-tuned to earth’s multiplicity of environments. However, as instincts only work within very specific environmental parameters, non-human animals are limited to specific geographic areas. Instincts only work as long as the inner programs match the outer environment. If the outer environment changes by just a few degrees in temperature or inches of rain — just enough to interfere with a very sensitive food chain, for example — instinctive behavior can be deadly. For instincts cannot readily accommodate themselves — or the organisms they are a part of — to external change. In other words, instincts essentially lock species into specific behaviors which only work in specific environments. If the environment changes, the species becomes extinct — or they mutate into something else. So, the survival value of instincts depends on a relatively stable environment.

We humans, however, are able to call the entire earth our home. We have even found ways to survive high above the earth and beneath the seas. On a planet characterized by environmental extremes and changes in environmental conditions, the human species, as a survival strategy, appears to have traded instinct for adaptability. This freedom from instinct is very beneficial, providing the human species with the capability to adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions. Therefore, the ability to distance ourselves from those specific inborn programs known as instincts, which tell members of the animal world exactly how to behave within a given habitat, but which offer no help at all if the habitat changes, appears to be both a uniquely human survival strategy and a uniquely human characteristic. In Christian religious circles, this characteristic, viewed positively, is termed “free will;” viewed negatively, it is termed “the fall.”

Note: In terms of instinct vs. adaptability, we are probably on a continuum with other species rather than occupying a totally separate position; but no one really knows.

However, in trading instinct for adaptability, humans have sustained a serious loss: we have lost the specific built-in mechanisms on which non-human animals depend for survival. In losing instincts, we have lost the built-in programs and system of values which tell us how to interact with the natural world and each other. We have lost the inborn foundation for shared meaning and collective action.

Without instincts, we could reasonably expect to be clueless, bombarded by myriad sense data with no labels as to their use or uselessness, help or hindrance, goodness or evil. Without instincts, we should be paralyzed by an endless succession of situations demanding decisive action, but with no idea what to base our decisions on. But we aren’t clueless and we aren’t paralyzed; on the contrary, we appear to function very well.

So, clearly, humans have developed or evolved something which replaces and mimics instincts, which provides us with behavioral patterns and shared meaning, which enables us to interact with each other and the physical environment, which connects us to that most powerful of all drives, the drive to survive. Something which channels the Life Force. Something that is both “out far and in deep.” But what is that “something?” According to Clifford Geertz, that something is symbols.

In his book The Interpretation of Cultures (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays By Clifford Geertz, Basic Books, 1973), Geertz says that “culture, rather than being added on, so to speak, to a finished or virtually finished animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself (Geertz 47). In emphasizing the importance and necessity of human culture in the development of the human being, Geertz says that “A cultureless human being [like an instinctless animal] would probably turn out to be….a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity.” (Geertz 68).

Geertz believes that the way culture became “ingredient” was through a “reciprocally creative relationship between somatic and extrasomatic phenomena” in which specific cultural information made up for the lack of specific inborn information” (Geertz 68). He bases this belief on the fact that, although the evolutionary trend in humans appears to be away from fixed patterns of behavior (because the human nervous system is seriously lacking when it comes to providing “automatically, preset, well-defined behavioral sequences”), within certain specific cultures, well-defined behavioral sequences clearly exist (Geertz 75, 76).

According to Geertz, “The human nervous system relies, inescapably, on the accessibility of public symbolic structures to build up its own autonomous, ongoing pattern of activity” (Geertz 83). “[I]t is precisely because of the fact that genetically programmed processes are so highly generalized in men [sic], as compared with lower [sic] animals, that culturally programmed ones are so important; only because human behavior is so loosely determined by intrinsic sources of information that extrinsic sources are so vital” (Geertz 93).

And finally, according to Geertz, “symbols are thus not mere expressions, instrumentalities, or correlates of our biological, psychological, and social existence; they are prerequisites of it; we create them; they create us” (Geertz 49-50).

The mutation which resulted in the loss of inborn genetic behavioral instructions and left us with the same inborn survival needs as the rest of the primate world ” the need for food, the need to mate, the need to care for young ” added something new: the capacity and the drive to create cultural symbols, specifically religious symbols and the capacity and the drive to identify these symbols and load them and their accompanying information into our brains/psyches. The symbol bonds with deep, intrinsic powerful emotional/biological structures, with the result that the extrinsic, culturally-defined behaviors become inextricably intertwined with the powerful, innate emotions associated with survival. These emotions, which once drove our animal ancestors to behave in species-defined ways, now drive us to behave in culturally-defined ways ” ways defined by the dominant symbols of the culture’s dominant religion.

Linking emotions associated to survival, emotions common to all humans, to culturally-specific behaviors defined by religion tricks us into believing that our cultural behaviors are human nature — or if they are not, they ought to be. Linking these powerful, human emotions to specific culture-wide behaviors makes us feel at the deepest level of our beings that the way we do things is the right way, the good way, the only way. Linking culturally-determined behaviors to human emotions lodges the motivations and models for our cultural behaviors “in-deep,” paradoxically creating a culture-specific human nature –and a human nature which just like our pre-human ancestors has a survival-based system of values reflected in and expressed by religion.

Where instincts provide detailed inborn behavioral programs, religion provides often detailed extrinsic instructions for behaviors which promote the health and well-being of societies and the health of individuals within societies. These instructions tell us how to relate to each other and our environment. Because religions are culture-wide, each member of a given culture is, in a manner of speaking, reading from the same page. Like instincts, religion creates a world of shared meaning and shared value, showing us what to do and enabling us to act collectively. Religions, therefore, by providing symbols which represent ultimate value structure human consciouness and human behavior as surely as instincts structure the brains and behavior of non-human animals. Religious symbols enable us to systematically organize and evaluate reality in order to promote our survival. However, when a culture’s perception of reality changes drastically ” as ours has over the last 100 years — then there is the danger that the symbol will act to destroy society rather than promote its survival.

So, to sum up: Religion is a characteristic of the human species without which humans would not have survived. Religions which are more or less a “true” reflection of a the physical and social environment ” including the society’s perception of that environment ” thrive along with the society because they provide useful tools for living. Because religious belief is tied to powerful emotions associated with survival, they are strong social bonding agents, but extremely difficult to let go of when they no longer work. Patriarchal monotheism has worked as a cultural organizing principle and source of values for at least 3,000 years. But today, it seems to be acting as a social dis-organizing principle. Perhaps it is time for a change.

For my essay on the organizing principle of Western culture, see The Dominant Symbol of Western Culture.

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