Science and Myth: Top 5 Adaptive Traits of Successful Religions

How do mythic traditions survive through the centuries? How do they thrive? By bringing together science and myth, an evolutionary perspective might help us think about these questions.

By “success” I mean long-time survival. I don’t even begin to consider the moral value or truth-content of religious teachings–all that is placed in brackets. This is an evolutionary view based on the history of religions.

Consider the possibility of the following top five list.

Top 5 adaptive features of successful religions
1. Continuity of motifs defining the religion
2. Vertical transmission
3. Ethics defining the in-group
4. Placeholder terms
5. Paradox

1. Continuity of motifs defining the religion

This is the single most important feature determining success. In order for a religion to propagate itself, it must establish and maintain a recognizable identity. It doesn’t necessarily require a name for itself or an identity as a religion per se, but it does require something to delineate what is and isn’t part of the package that must be passed on to the next generation. Many indigenous religions, such as Shinto, had no name until the introduction of foreign religions necessitated a way to distinguish the local from the alien. Others had no overt identity as religions per se–ancient Greek had no word for “religion” (the closest was theon timai, “honors for the gods”). But it is absolutely necessary for a religion to delineate its key motifs in some way. The signal must be separable from the noise. Thus religions throughout history have developed special motifs to mark off the sacred from the mundane. They may be visual symbols like totem poles, crosses, or mosques, auditory symbols like hymns, chants, or special styles of music, or linguistic symbols like divine names, myths, or doctrines. They may be temporal symbols like annual festivals or rites of passage. Finally, they may be ethical symbols like ritual, prayer, or taboo. Most all religions feature a combination of these motifs.

All successful religions develop a canon of such motifs to identify what is to be propagated. Without it, a would-be religion would be lost in the wash of custom, extinct before it even came into existence. And without maintaining such a canon, an established religion would be absorbed into competing religions. This is what happened to Buddhism in Medieval India: it effectively died out in its birthplace because it was no longer sufficiently different from Hinduism. A canon of motifs functions to define the unit of transmission.

Interestingly, it is not necessary that exactly the same set of motifs carry on down through the ages. It is only necessary that a continuity of motifs be passed on. Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the semi-polytheistic sacrificial temple religion of ancient Jerusalem, but a continuous lineage links the transformations from the one to the other. Japanese Buddhism is virtually unrecognizable compared with the religion founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, but again a lineage connects them.

2. Vertical transmission

The second most important feature is vertical transmission. Transmission of some kind is necessary as a matter of course: a religion of one person is no religion at all. All religions feature transmission. But vertical transmission–that is, transmission through the generations via family lines–is a feature of highly adaptive religions. The other kind is horizontal transmission–that is, transmission via dissemination and conversion. Horizontal transmission is also adaptive, but mainly as a supplement to vertical transmission. Religions consisting solely of converts rarely last. Those that inculcate religion into the young at an early age ensure deeply committed followers bonded to each other by family ties. Due to the immense importance of vertical transmission, religions conducive to large families survive better, if only because they can out-breed their rivals. Thus, those associated with agricultural peoples, whose many children are needed to work the fields, have an advantage in this regard.

3. Ethics defining the in-group

The next most important feature is ethics, but not in any moral sense of the word. Rather, the sense is of a set of prescribed and proscribed behaviors serving to separate the in-group from the out-group. When followers are restricted from partaking in certain common activities, like eating pork, they are discouraged from mingling with outsiders. This serves to protect the all-important canon of motifs from becoming diluted with foreign influences. When followers are exhorted to partake in certain prescribed activities, like eating only food that is halal, they are encouraged to congregate together. This serves to keep children with parents and therefore ensure vertical transmission. The saying “The family that prays together stays together” should actually be amended to “The family that prays together stays faithful to the religion.”

Dietary restrictions are by no means the only relevant ethics–there are innumerable taboos and ritualistic behaviors that serve the function of separating in-group from out-group. However, diet does seem to deserve special mention, as it is known the world over and is superbly effective. Contemporary Malaysia is a jumble of ethnic groups and religions, but syncretization is stymied in no small part thanks to diet. The Malays can only eat at Muslim kitchens with halal utensils and menus. The Hindu Tamils do not eat beef and so are unlikely to frequent Muslim kitchens and likely to seek out Hindu ones. The Chinese have no special dietary restrictions and so can eat where they like, but that same freedom means that Muslims and Hindus are unlikely to frequent Chinese kitchens. Thus, the breaking of bread together–a key act of good will between peoples–is effectively discouraged. The result is a society boiling with ethnic-religious tension, but extremely adaptive from a religious evolutionary perspective. At the cost of social peace, religions maintain their canons of motifs.

4. Placeholder terms

Of great importance is the strategic use of placeholder terms. By “placeholder terms” I mean key religious terms, the meanings of which are defined so vaguely as to invite a wide range of interpretation. Such terms include god, spirit, truth, wisdom, justice, good, evil, and so on. These terms give a semblance of meaning immediately recognizable to all followers, but their precise meanings are so vague that they can be made to support nearly any policy or agenda that happens to arise. This is vitally important to the long-term survival of religions. As centuries pass and values change, the old motifs must be continually reinvigorated with new meanings. If the key terms are too rigidly defined, they become irrelevant when the social context that gave rise to them is no longer present. Thus, to allow for changing contexts, the terms must remain vague, even vacuous. Each generation fills them with new meanings, all the while purporting to carry on the “ancient” tradition. Reforms in religions are frequently presented as a return to old ways: the previous generations’ meanings are declared corrupt and degenerate, and new meanings are attached under the smokescreen of “getting back to basics.” American currency says “In God we trust”, and a new generation of religious pundits have successfully filled that phrase with their new evangelistic, creationistic, and political meanings, even though the founding fathers were mostly Deists and meant something very different by the word “God.” Proponents of keeping the phrase “In God we trust” on the currency say “God” is open to interpretation, thus emptying the term of specific meaning. At the same time, pundits fill it up again with their highly-specific meanings in order to push their politics. Through this example it can clearly be seen how the term is merely a placeholder for the values and agendas of the moment. The strategic use of placeholder terms allows a religion to stay limber while maintaining the continuity of its motifs.

5. Paradox

Finally, the fifth highly-adaptive feature of religions is effective use of paradox. By “paradox” I mean something not immediately obvious, something that frustrates the conventional, mundane reasoning process and opens a follower to the mysterious. This could be something which by ordinary standards is “impossible.” Miracles are by definition impossible, though they purportedly happen nonetheless. It could also be something unanswerable by ordinary means, such as the question of why we exist or what happens after we die. It could also be something beyond the ken of ordinary perception, such as invisible spirits shooting elf shot to cause illness.

Such uses of paradox are adaptive for several reasons. First, they awaken followers to the limitations of their own understanding, thus making them more receptive to understandings transmitted as part of the religion’s package of motifs. Second, they make the followers dependent on the religion’s motifs to explain the paradox. Third and finally, they cause those who feel “deep in their heart” a given response to the paradox to seek the company of likeminded souls. Humans seem to have a psychological need to be “understood” by their fellows. Thus, followers retreat from those who do not share their religious feelings and congregate with those who do. Contemporary Pagans have hit upon “magic” as a paradox sufficiently mysterious to make them seek out each other and remain reticent around those who “just don’t get it.”

This congregation based on common feeling bonds the community together, serving to enhance the functioning of the previous four adaptive features. Followers express their paradoxical feelings in terms of their religion’s canonical motifs, transmit their feelings to their young in these terms, and adopt the religion’s ethics in order to be part of the group of those who “feel the same.”

Note there is nothing indicating followers do in fact feel the same phenomenological experience. Placeholder terms allow individual, unique, and radically different feelings to be expressed in common linguistic forms, creating the perception of sameness. This sameness may be genuine, or it may be an illusion. So long as a religion’s placeholder terms are vague enough to accommodate all the followers’ different experiences, a perception of in-group commonality can arise and be maintained. Thus Episcopalians and Evangelicals and Roman Catholics and Coptics and Quakers and Snake-handlers can all feel they have a common bond through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though the personal experiences of all these different followers are likely to be radically different.


These are the top five features determining the long-term “success” (evolutionary survival) of religions. Most religions in history have featured them in some way, and those that have not have died out or been absorbed into other religions.

Bringing science and myth together in this way can help us clarify how we think about religions.

Diversity In Religions And Synergy Enhancement Of Religions At Loggerheads


1. All religions have two components:

* Beliefs/rituals/mythology: all religions differ from one another in this regard,
* Desirable behaviour or ethics of life: all religions display similar approach.


2. The unrest, violence in human society over religious issues, stems from two factors:

*Each religion believes it is the sole franchisee of God’s religion and that God has conveyed His message directly through the messengers or directly in some cases, only to their religion.

*Religions are also managed like corporates these days. which implies: more number of followers more resources; this results in conflict of interest and resultant clashes.


3. Each religion has its quota of irrational beliefs, which is faithfully accepted by its followers but taken with a pinch of salt, by followers of other religions. Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, let us tolerate irrationality in all religions, as long as it is not immoral and is not forced on others and let us not comment adversely on irrational beliefs of other religions.


4. All religions have zero tolerance over criticism on rituals, scriptures; some religions have less tolerance, some comparatively more. Caricatures, critical comments on God, His representatives or scriptures often invite harsh retaliations through ‘fatwa’ or social boycott. This view clashes with freedom of speech; but it is compromised and results in great risk to the lives of critics from extremists.


5. Ten Commandments are the best guidelines to live a noble life. All religions have similar guidelines, in this regard.

*We must admire Christianity for translating Bible into hundreds of local languages; a language, the followers can comprehend. Other religions will sure gain a lot, to emulate the idea.

*However, the belief that Christ has paid for the sins of all Christians 2000 years ago, when he was crucified for no fault of his, is seen as flawed, irrational by non-Christians. But this belief, need not be debated, better leave it and let Christians believe in it. Let us not insist on proving others wrong, if we are at variance. Let us concentrate on what is similar in our religions and use it to cement the bonds of humanity.

*The belief in day of judgement may not be rational and the ritual of burial after death in occidental religions could have been due to natural/geographical compulsions in the area, where desert land was in plenty and vegetation scarce. But to get into discussion that concept of rebirth is less irrational and cremation is a better option is not desirable and is counter-productive.


6. Islam propagates one God, who never takes birth as human-being.It asks its followers to apprise non-believers(Kafirs), of this truth. It is a belief, but as long as it is not forced on others, we must not bother about it. Unfortunately, fundamentalists insist on forcing others to accept it, although Koran says ‘apprise others of the truth, but do not enforce it on others’. This is a common corporate practice in all religions, where all missionaries, in good faith, insist on others to follow their religion’s path, as they believe it is better. We got to learn that there are multiple solutions for any problem, and all equally right.

*Islam forbids statue worship; a common feature in oriental religions. Let us look at it in another perspective; we remember our old relations, parents who have departed, with their photographs,which helps us to remember. Similarly, statues and photographs help us to comprehend better, a formless God. However to think that the lifeless stone sculptor as God is wrong; but that still does not allow anybody to ill treat the irrational believers.


7. It encourages debates and discussions over commonly accepted customs; unlike other religions, where the followers can not question the scriptures.Its salient features:


*It talks of omnipresent grief among all human-beings, for various reasons:

First, we are unhappy when we are unable to live life as per our traditional up bringing;

Second, nothing is permanent in life, it is a dynamic field, circumstances change over time: nations, individuals prosperous now will be weak, poor in future and

Third, conventional griefs: poor health, getting old and death.

But there is a solution to our griefs, if we understand cause and effect in every occurrence.


*Another concept in Buddhism is systematic understanding of life:

First, have a teacher, guru, who guides you,

There after move on to loyalty to the organisation and not to an individual,

And then graduate to obedience of principles, for principles of life are supreme, and not an organisation or an individual.


8. It has its own quota of irrational beliefs; but it has a wonderful book Gita, to explain laws of life and how one should live life:


*We work so that we earn for our hard work. Gita advocates: we should all work, without expecting rewards, which please our senses.We should work, as there is no better alternative. There are three types of people:

First, those who are willing to work, if adequately rewarded,

Second, those not willing to work, lazy and contented in their lot

And third, the ideal, they want to work for it is their nature and they are not mad after rewards.


*Gita lists good and bad qualities and we can evaluate ourselves:

There are 26 Godly qualities listed in Gita. Some of these are: fearlessness, truthfulness, non-violence, balanced view of life, forgiveness, to do self-duty, no revenge, controlled 5 senses, kindness to others, a spirit of sacrifice, patience, humility, no temptations, no back-biting, no anger, no restlessness to do everything and good reading.

Among the demonic qualities are: desire, anger, greed, attachment, ego and snob behaviour.


We all believe, my way of thinking, my people, my family, my language, my culture, my religion and my country are the best. It means, we are most suitable to control the resources of the world and to redistribute for good of


*Hinduism accepts that God adopts human-body, as and when necessitated in the world, to fight injustice. A belief strongly contested by Islam, Sikhism, but not by Christianity, who believe Christ, the son of God got into human form to help humanity. But these differences in beliefs are irrelevant in our daily living; except that fundamentalists exploit these differences to generate violence.


9. It insists that God never adopts physical body; it conveys His message through its messengers. It believes in: accepting the will of God, honest living, remembering God by reciting scriptures, sharing the earnings with society, service to community, holy congregation and taking meals together, sitting together irrespective of social status.

*It advocates high ideals such as, we are all one, same God is in all of us; a utopian idea; which is still not fully understood, and if understood, seldom implemented by Sikhs. Sikhs too are divided into small groups who marry within their subgroup only.

*Sikhs like others believe in selective obedience of religious teaching, where ever it suits. Sikhs do not smoke as religion forbids, but enjoy drinks and drugs which are forbidden too and are fighting a losing battle against it


10. Religious violence is due to lack of understanding of own religion as well as other religions; not many of us understand the language of religious scriptures,for example Sanskrit or Arabic languages. Surprisingly even educated people depend upon religious preachers to understand their own religion, thus religious sentiments are exploited by a minority, of religious teachers who are hard liners. Our education system must have comparative unbiased study of all religions, without commenting which one is better.

11.Let us make a beginning, by sorting out intra-religion issues, only there after sort out inter-religion issues. There are clashes between Protestants and Roman Catholics, Sunnis and Shias all over the world. Let us begin by sorting out intra-religion differences and then sort out bigger issues of inter-religion differences in beliefs.

When God Is One, Why People Fight In The Name Of Religion?

All religions accept that God is One who has created the Earth, Heaven and everything that is seen and unseen in the universe. Even the polytheistic religions like Hinduism, believe that all Gods are the manifestation of the same Ultimate Reality of Bhagawan. Yet it is also a fact that people have always fought in the name of religion. Even in the modern world, religion continues to be the cause of conflict in many parts of the world.

Even though, God has been perceived and represented differently in different religions, yet all religions agree that God is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, the origin and cause of all things, just, compassionate and the source of all goodness in the world. However, on the ground level, most people are extremely suspicious of the gods of other religions. They believe that only their god is the True God while the God of other religion is either False or inferior.

Why such a misconception in understanding God? Is it deliberate or natural? The answer to this question is necessary for the mankind, as God is still the most important reality in the life of most people in the world. Religion still gives meaning to most of the people in the world and most people are tied to their religion and spend their life in the religion they are born.

God: The Essence of Religion

It is difficult to define religion as no unanimity exists on the concept of religion. As per one definition provided in Wikipedia,

“A religion is a set of beliefs and practices often organized around supernatural and moral claims, and often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law.”

Thus the concept of God is not necessary in religion but the external codes of the religion like prayer, ritual and a sacred book or scripture are necessary in all religions. Yet the faith and believes of all religions revolves around the central theme of God but the concept of God is different in all religions. Hence all religions are same to the extent that they all deals with God (the supernatural power), but different to the extend that they represent the different concept of God. God may be a single word, but its meaning is different in all religions and indeed for every one.

The Trinity of God

In order to understand the different representations of God, it would be useful to understand the concept of Trinity in Christianity. The concept of Trinity of God means that God has three manifestations i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Father God refers to the concept of God that is beyond the perception of human mind and senses as the Father God is infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscience while human mind has limited capability to learn and understand. Father God is known by different names in different religions like Yahwah (Judaism), Allah (Islam) , Brahman (Hinduism) or Absolute. However the Absolute God is incomprehensible to the common people as it is beyond the grasp of the senses and the mind. This God is better understood by the philosophers who spend their life in understanding the God intellectually and rationally.

Therefore, the God we know is the God who takes the form of man and communicates to us in the language and symbols of the man. The Son God is thus the human representation of God in the world. Christianity refers this form of God as “Son” or Jesus Christ, or the Son of God. In other religions, the human representation of God has been referred as Avatars (Incarnation) or Prophets. The Prophets or Avatars are the human beings who have acquired the highest state of “spiritual” awakening which has made them closest to the divinity. Thus man acquires divinity by the power of the Spirit.

The third manifestation of God is therefore, the Holy Spirit or simply called the Spirit. Spirit of God is believed to be present in all the living beings. Every person has the presence of God in him or her due to the omnipresence of spirit in this world. It is due to the presence of spirit that we are capable of knowing God through self-realization or meditation. Thus some religions like Buddhism or Sikhism are essentiality spiritual religions, who do not believe in the God as Absolute or God as human being but treats God as Spirit that is present in all living beings. Upanishads and Gita also call this representation of God as Paramatma (Universal Soul) whose spark i.e. Atman (Soul) is present in every being.

The Mystery of Revealed Truth of Religion

Even though all human beings are the son (or daughter) of God, yet we fail to understand God due to our engagement in the external world or the world of the senses. The human mind is capable of seeing outside world from the eyes of the senses or seeing inside Self through the eyes of intuition and achieve self-realization. Yet few people realize the need for self-realization as they prefer to understand the Truth from the people who have achieved self-realization.

Since every person is both a body and a soul, he is not only a part of the material world but also a part of the spiritual world. He has to integrate himself with this world for the survival of the body and also required to integrate with the spirit or the unknown world to receive happiness and peace in life that emanates from the soul. He needs to earn his livelihood to keep the body in living condition. Thus the knowledge of the world is absolutely necessary without which no person can play any useful role in the society and fulfill his material necessities of the body.

However, every person is also a Soul hence part of the Universal Soul or the Spirit. Since his soul is deeply connected with the Universal Soul, hence by self-realization alone a person can hope to achieve the true knowledge of the religion or the world or get answer of the deeper quest of life. However, self-realization is a difficult task which can be achieved only when a person focuses all his attention away from the material world and search the truth within. In some ways man has to himself become Spirit (devoid of physical passion and material desire) to reach extremely close to the divinity in order to understand the thoughts of God. It is only when the man attains the nature of spirit; the Truth is revealed to him by God.

Yet, even after realization of the Ultimate Truth, it is difficult to explain this Truth to the common man who are still attached to the material world. If the Truth is explained to them as revealed, it would be incompressible to the common man. A common man can not understand the spiritual truths as they can only see from the eyes of the senses rather then seeing from the eyes of the spirit. The prophets, thus face unique dilemma. They can either limit the Ultimate Truth to a selected few that can be understood by few people who are in the higher stage of spiritual evolution, or covert the Ultimate Truth in the language of the senses and mind for the understanding of the common man.

Rituals: The Body of the Religion

Religion, therefore, like any other creation of the world has both the body and the soul. While the soul of all religions emanates from the same God, the bodies of the religions are different for each culture and society.

In some ways, we can perhaps compare the differences in the religions with the differences in the physical appearance of the people of different race and ethnicity. If it is true that all human beings are offspring of God, then why they all look different from each other? While some differences between individuals are unpredictable, yet other differences surely have explanations. For example when a soul takes the form of a body, the physical characteristics of the body does bear a close resemblance to the body of the parents. Therefore, if the soul takes human form in black parents, the body of the son shall also be black and if the parents are white so shall be the offspring.

Thus when the spirit is converted into body, its physical outlook develops a close resemblance with the parent. In the same way, when God take incarnation in this world, his revelation in the language of the world are different for each religion.

When Symbols are Confused with Reality

The body of the religion is created when the “Revealed Truth” is expressed in the form of words or symbol by the prophets. While people can listen to the words and see the symbols, they can’t know the spirit of the religion except by self-realization. However, most of the people do not have the time and inclination for self-realization. The result is that they confuse the body of the religion as the religion itself. Thus instead of using the words and the symbols as a means to realize the Self or God of the religion, the words and symbols become the end in itself.

All the conflicts within a religion or between different religions arise only because the followers of the religion confuse the symbols of divinity with the divinity. Instead of using the symbols as the means to understand the divinity, they believe the symbol itself as divine. Since symbols are external, they are different in reach religion. The methods of prayers and the words that are uttered in the prayers are always different in each religion since the language is the creation of the man. In the same way even the name and description of God in every religion is different as every society has different languages and symbols to express the thoughts and ideas.

Stop Fighting in The Name of God

Religion, in the modern society is considered to be a matter of person choice. Therefore, governments all over the world are doing little to create a harmony between religions which are essentially the reflections of the same God. The scientific knowledge of the Truth is based on the body i.e. the material reality. Hence, scientific thinking can only reveal the differences in religions, rather then the common truth of the religion, which can come only from the intuition and self-realization. However, in the world of materialism, it is extremely difficult for the people to focus their mind inwards when all the material realities lie outside. The result is that people understand religion only from the symbols and fight with each other. As soon as the complete Truth of God and Religion is realized by self-realization, the conflicts in the name of religion has to come to an end.