Religion, Environment, and the Cost to Human Freedom
Marc Pratarelli, Ph.D.
A cognitive neuroscientist might see freedom as the integrity of the individual brain to exist. Consciousness evolved in the natural order of the universe because it was adaptive. Any organism that possesses it—more or less—exercises a degree of free choice to negotiate a complex environment. Similarly, morality is one of many cognitive tools organisms use to survive. It’s not uniquely human.
Both religious practice and individual freedom are byproducts of natural selection because believing in them is statistically adaptive over geologic time. Measuring their impacts over a few lifetimes is a distraction from our understanding of these universal social constructions motivated by common biological drives.
Research shows us the last seven commandments exist in the scriptures of all religions. Is it just a perverse coincidence? Hardly. These and many other moral codes were stumbled upon and culturally enshrined because they favored survivability in the short term. Belief in any of the 425+ gods worked as well, but again, only in the short term. That’s not to say they eliminated conflict or aggression because those too are biological in origin.
The freedoms perceived by individuals are necessary because of the type of nervous system they possess. Social insects have a diffuse nervous system and only a modicum of freedom because the narrowly defined genetic script dictates their role within the colony and its ecological niche. Not all vertebrates produce religious-like behavior, but all exhibit what we call evolutionary ethics, or an ethics of survival and reproduction from which particular moral codes arise. The larger the brain the more sophistication an organism can exercise toward survival. Thus, having moral codes like the Ten Commandments enhances the short-term prospects of surviving in complex social and shifting environmental settings. In fact, they have very little intrinsic value to the individual other than to reduce stress and anxiety, and increase perceived happiness, all of which enhance the likelihood of succeeding in the future. But these too are predicated on another behavioral instinct called denial or self-deception.
The more you delude yourself into believing something is true when it isn’t (like the supremacy of your particular god)—and the reverse is also true—(you’re nothing but the product of evolved adaptations over geologic time and therefore you’re no more divine than any other believer or organism), the happier you are. “Freedom” is thus little more than the self-imposed illusion in all organisms that one’s existence has purpose. Without it, the exceptionalism of our species or of the self simply crumbles.
So what do freedom and religion have to do with environment? It boils down to a biophysical reality. Organisms that believe they have freedom will be successful in the short term, but compromise their existence over geologic time. That is, if your beliefs lead to continuous success on a finite planet, overpopulation, overconsumption of limited resources, and collapse soon follow. Garrett Hardin once wrote “ultimate freedom in the Commons, brings ruin to all.” Such is the present case globally. Too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. Without the intelligence to recognize the illusions and our institutionalized forms of denial, we simply continue toward the ultimate consequence nature has in store for organisms who take too much for themselves and give too little back.