Very similar arguments have been applied to language. Every human society we have encountered has possessed language, and Noam Chomsky has famously claimed that there are similarities in the structure of all languages that point to the existence of a "Universal Grammar" (Chomsky 1972). The grammar or "deep structure" of human languages is very complex, yet young children seem to have an innate ability to master this complexity within a short time, as if by instinct. This has suggested to many people that the rules of grammar are in some sense built into the human brain during evolution.
If this idea is correct, the same be true of religion. Perhaps there is a "deep structure" for religion just as there seems to be for language.
In his book The Symbolic Species. Terrence Deacon rejects Chomsky's view and proposes instead the hypothesis that languages evolve in a kind of symbiotic relation with the human mind (Deacon, 1997). The fact that young children are able to learn languages with apparent ease, he suggests, doesn't mean that they have some extraordinary innate linguistic ability but rather that human languages have evolved to be learned easily by immature minds.
There is a two-fold evolution going on here: certainly the human brain has evolved linguistic capabilities that are absent in the brains of other primates, but at the same time languages have adapted themselves to be readily learnable by children. This clearly has something in common with Dawkins's meme idea, which Deacon does mention in passing, but it places more emphasis on evolutionary change in language than we find in the writings of most memeticists.
Whatever the explanation, the phenomenon certainly exists, as anyone who has tried to learn a new language in later life can testify. But religion is acquired by children in a very similar way to language. Many people are taught religion literally at their mothers' knees, and religions infused early in life in this way have a different quality from those that may be adopted later as the result of conversion.
Religious beliefs inculcated in childhood are also difficult to shake off, just as one's mother tongue is more persistent in the face of disuse than languages learned in later life. Seen in this way, the well-known if apocryphal Jesuit saying, "Give me a boy until he's seven and he's mine for life", takes on a new significance.
Misguided attempts to bring the language up to date often coincide with a loss of religious faith, and it's difficult to say what is cause and what is effect. Some Roman Catholics still lament the abandonment of the Latin Mass in favour of the vernacular, and disuse of the Book of Common Prayer by the Church of England has not prompted an influx of young worshippers to the pews (Freeman 2001).
(i) In Christianity we have Catholicism and Protestantism: Catholicism goes in for devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints and produces complex vestments and rituals, all of which are frowned on to a greater or lesser extent by Protestants.
(ii) In Buddhism there is the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana: the Theravada is relatively austere and unemotional, whereas the Mahayana has the Bodhisattvas (who compare in some ways with the saints in Catholicism) and elaborate ceremonies.
(iii) Within Islam there are likewise differences in tone between Sunni and Shia: in a Shia country such as Iran you frequently see pictures of Ali, Husayn and other "saints" in taxis and elsewhere which are curiously reminiscent of Greek icons and Catholic saints' pictures. Catholicism, Mahayana, and Shiite Islam have something in common, and so do Protestantism, Theravada, and Sunni Islam.
As a language passes from generation to generation, the vocabulary and syntactical rules tend to get modified by transmission errors, by the active creativity of its users, and by influences from other languages... Eventually words, phraseology and syntax will diverge so radically that people will find it impossible to mix elements of both without confusion. By analogy to biological evolution, different lineages of a common ancestral language will diverge so far from each other as to become reproductively incompatible.Substitute "religion" for "language" in this passage for a pretty exact description of how Christianity evolved from Judaism. They have become different species, which can no longer "interbreed". Within religions there are often subspecies—the different denominations within Christianity, for example, which can interbreed although they seldom do.
We couldn't do without language, but could we do without religion? Has it become so deeply infused into our minds and our culture that we cannot rid ourselves of it? It may be like the mitochondria in our cells; these were originally free-living organisms, but at some stage in the distant past they became permanent denizens of all advanced cells, which depend on them for their ability to use oxygen for energy. Have religions become our psychological mitochondria?
As we contemplate the spread of fundamentalism and fanaticism today among many religions, with all that this portends for continuing conflict and perhaps the disintegration of society, it's difficult to avoid a sense of disquiet.
Postscript added 9 February 2006
The late Ben Cullen of the Department of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University, Belfast, wrote a paper shortly before he died called Parasite ecology and the evolution of religion. In this he criticised Richard Dawkins's view of religion as a parasite. Here is an abstract of the paper*.
It is argued that the blanket view of religion as a disease, advocated by Dawkins, is inconsistent with the principles of parasite ecology. These principles state that vertically transmitted parasites evolve towards benign, symbiotic states, while horizontally transmitted parasites increase their virulence. Most of the world's established religions are transmitted vertically, from parents to children, and are therefore expected to be benign towards their hosts. Yet, certain horizontally transmitted cults, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, seem to effectively exploit their hosts in a way similar to an infectious disease.To which I would add that many of the recent Islamic terrorist attacks have been perpetrated either by converts to Islam or by people who are described as having been lax in their religious observance before becoming radicalised. In both cases their recent religious views were acquired mainly or entirely by horizontal transmission.
Cullen's idea fits well with the view of religion which I propose in this article: namely, that it can be either beneficial or harmful to its host (or possibly even neutral). Most of my discussion concerns vertical transmission, which would thus generally be beneficial or neutral.
*The article was published in Heylighen F., Bollen J & Riegler A. (ed.) (1999): The Evolution of Complexity (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht). It is available on line here.