Religion Evolved for Self-Control

on January 10, 2009

ScienceDaily: “Religion May Have Evolved Because of its Ability to Help People Exercise Self-Control” How is one psychologist answering the loaded question “why did religion evolve?”

University of Miami (Florida) psychologist Michael McCullough thinks he has a clue to just why religion evolved: as a mechanism for improving self-control in participants.

Religious people have more self-control.

McCullough reviewed almost a century worth of research on world religions, including research from neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology. His conclusion? That religious people have more self-control, and thus are better at achieving long-term goals. For example, McCullough noted that religious people have an advantage over the irreligious when it comes to substance abuse, academic achievement, crime, and physical and mental health.

Additionally, McCullough pointed out studies that show that the part of the brain responsible for prayer is also “most important” for self-control, and that goals viewed as “sacred” receive more attention and effort. Also—unsurprisingly—religions provide moral standards and religious persons believe God is watching their behavior, contributing further to self-control.

And . . . that’s it. The press release offers nothing to buttress the titular claim that the connection between religion and self-control (or good behavior in general) shows that it “evolved.” These days, research of all kinds is hammered to fit into the grand story of evolution—and as long as the story can be imagined to be true, it counts as science.

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