I have no interest in either defending or attacking religion as a meta-subject. As with Norm Geras’s current essay on the subject, which responds to a piece by Derbyshire, that “debate” always ends up in the modern equivalent of “how many angels can dance on a pin-head?” There is another, perhaps more profitable, angle.

Societies can be thought of as analogous to organisms. Analogy is always suspect because exact analogies do not exist, and it is easy to fall into wrong thinking by following the analogy too far. Organisms have definite edges; it is possible to point to two points in space and say, “this is part of a wolf, and this is not.” Societies are much less well-defined, and merge into one another at the fringes. Still, though, we can and do think of and describe societies as identifiable subsets of humanity, as “nations” or “ethnic groups” or “tribes” or “cultures”, and at least some of the qualities of organisms apply to those identifiable subsets.

One of those qualities is evolution. Societies change by adopting new practices. If the new practice promotes success of the society and its members, the society grows stronger and larger; if a new practice is destructive the society shrinks and becomes weaker, and may disappear entirely. This is a reasonably exact analogue of the evolution of organisms, with the primary difference being that not all new practices follow the Darwinian model by appearing as random mutations; they can also be acquired, Lysenko-style, either by rational assessment of what is needed for success or adoption from an adjoining society seen as more successful.

Experience shows that the “rational assessment” is rarely carried out, and that when practices are adopted from adjoining societies it is rarely or never because they are rationally seen as success-promoting. From the point of view of the members of any society, the practices they follow simply appeared de novo; and, for the most part, neither the members of the society nor onlookers from outside it can define the specific success-promoting aspect of any particular practice. Societal practices appear to be arbitrary and lacking a rational basis. They must, however, be preserved; it is specifically the set of practices or customs the society employs that define it as contrasted to others, and it is those practices which have contributed to its success as a society.

This is the historical role of religion, and it seems plausible to suggest that it may be the origin of religion. Apparently arbitrary practices are codified into a rule-set, and taught to new members of the society as necessary practices. Neither the members of the society nor any putative observers can define the source of those rules, because they “just growed” as new practices were introduced and resulted in success or failure, nor can anyone define just why a particular practice promotes success and must therefore be preserved. The Rules are therefore attributed to some force outside the society — which is true, the force being the inexorable progress of evolution — and, with the urge to personify external influences which appears to be well-nigh universal, that force becomes Deity, the One(s) Who Must Be Obeyed.

Arguing about whether religion is “good” or “bad” is therefore effort poured into spinning the hamster wheel, getting nowhere with extreme vigor. The Rules remain arbitrary and capricious; they must nevertheless be codified and enforced, or the society adopts practices that do not promote success and consequently fails. The forces that promote success or failure are not at all obvious, apparent, rational, or reasonable; they appear to come from some outside source, and such outside forces are inevitably personified by individual human beings. Religion therefore appears, willy-nilly, in every society. It is amusing to see environmentalists declaring themselves rational and scientific while promoting the myth of Gaia, the Mother Earth. It is somewhat less amusing to see the Left striving to obfuscate their personification of the Inevitable Progress of Economics, as explicated by the Prophet Karl.

One corollary of that error is the assumption that since The Rules are arbitrary they can be modified at will. God does not exist; it follows that His Rules are invalid, and societies may do as they please. This ignores the evolutionary aspect (which, in most cases, is in fact the goal of those proposing New Rules). The practices or customs of any particular society are, by definition, those that led it to be sufficiently successful to exist in present time, just as the attributes of an organism are the ones that led to its species being successful enough to survive to be seen. Evolution takes a long time to work; random mutations may cause an organism to possess a trait that leads to failure by some subtle effect, so it may persist for a long time even though its species will eventually die out, and random alterations of societal practices may have some side-effect that will eventually destroy the society even if they result in short-term advantages.

That, in turn, leads to a thought: What makes us think our ideas are entirely new and unprecedented? Humans have lived in more-or-less-organized societies for many, many millenia, and while our predecessors didn’t have access to the information we have accumulated over that time, there is no reason to suspect that they were our intellectual inferiors. There is therefore no reason to suspect that our new, liberal, Progressive notions didn’t occur to somebody a long time ago; the only reason we might have to assume that this is the case is that no precursor society exhibits those practices. That might also result from those ideas being adopted by societies which did not survive and are therefore not present for us to refer to, while those societies that did not adopt those practices grew, thrived, and are therefore visible in the present day.

Early humans, lacking fangs, claws, or an abundance of fast-twitch muscle, had to live by their wits, thus conserving “intelligence” as a trait of the human species. There are distinct morphological differences between male and female human beings, but they are insignificant beside the difference between a human being and, say, a saber-toothed tiger, and there are almost no intellectual differences between men and women, certainly as far as raw processing-power goes. It “stands to reason” (haaaark, spit!) that a species that survives only by employing intelligence would necessarily employ all the intelligence it could put to bear on the problem of survival, and female human beings represent at least half of the available supply of intelligence. And, yet, no society which has survived to the present day allows full emancipation of women with consequent full use of their intelligence as a promoter of survival and success — in fact, the norm is “patriarchy”, denoting near-complete exclusion of women from the decision-making process except as secondary influences on men. Might it be that Evolution, whether or not personified as $DEITY, is trying to tell us something?