Over the past two decades traditional church membership has declined sharply. According to Gallup 70% of Americans were church members for most of the last century (1937-1976). Between 1976 and 1999 there was a slight decline down to about 68% of Americans as church members. But with the start of the new millennium a drastic decline began where now fewer than 50% of Americans are members of any church along with more and more people identifying as non-religious.
Whether church membership is morally good vs bad is not the point of this short essay. I tend to view everything through the lens of evolutionary biology so thats where this will go. My curiosity is around the role religions play in our society to protect or better us in an evolutionary sense. Put simply, how does religion make more successful babies? Evolutionary success is basically more healthy babies reaching breeding age themselves. If couple A produces 16 viable offspring and 14 of these go on to reproduce while couple B produces 6 offspring with 4 of these to go on to reproduce.... then couple A is the winner!
From this perspective I believe religions have evolved to benefit this one measure of our success. The most important measure I would argue. The DNA package which produces more wins... its that simple. Most religions are bound by strict rules, teachings and accountability to doctrine. Almost universally they promote restraint in keeping ones passions in due bounds, a good word for this is Temperance. Temperance being moderation in acton, thought, or feeling... restraint... moderation in indulgence. You would be hard pressed to find any religious following where temperance is not a main theme or goal. Further I would argue religions which don't focus on temperance just don't last or are not religion at all but more philosophy. So the basis of religion tends to be temperance and strict accountability... framed as "life or death"... "follow these rules unquestionably or DIE"... "follow this or be cast into the eternal lake of fire!".... a strict binary of good or evil along with a good dose of GUILT for any variance beyond the dogma!
So if temperance and strict accountability are abiding characteristics of religion how does this benefit the successful assembly of our little DNA packages we call kids? To understand this first you must understand the human reproductive strategy... in ecological classification humans fall into the K-selected species reproductive strategy. Characteristics of this group include- fewer offspring, long life expectancy, extensive parental care, long gestational period, stable environments for rearing offspring and major investment in each offspring usually requiring major inputs from both father/mother. Contrast this with the other ecological reproductive strategy we call r-selected. Characteristics of this group include- many cheap offspring, unstable environments, low parental investment in each offspring (rarely fathers involved some even no mother after birth/hatch), smaller body size and short gestation periods.
So how does having most of our population attending church benefit a K-selected species such as humans? To me this is obvious... due to our expense in producing even one viable offspring we must have a very stable environment for a long time.... with total support from both mom and dad. Having either mom or dad run free to pursue their own indulgences away from the core team is not usually helpful! Particularly in a sexual way! In K selected species the price of even one extramarital tryst is very high! Raising some errant man's DNA is not the goal! A religious framework promoting temperance goes a long way to prevent rampant extramarital affairs!
Part of having a safe environment for these slow to grow, helpless DNA packages we call kids also involves protection. Just 200 years ago having dad not close by could result in death of the entire family! Keeping both mom and dad together for an extended period benefits the success of these helpless DNA packages. Moderation in substance abuse, overeating and many detrimental indulgences is also a tenant of most religious practices... again ultimately benefitting the overarching goal of producing viable humans! The benefit of temperance bound by strict accountability is why we have created religious frameworks in virtually every society.
All of this makes it obvious why "religion" is almost a required human component. We instinctually are drawn to religion. By instinct we want to follow and enforce religion in our circles! For us following a religious code is indeed "life or death"! But if this is true then why are we losing religion in our modern society???
I propose we ARE NOT LOSING RELIGION AT ALL! It is only evolving or being replaced. Welcome to the Church of the Woke! In my lifetime traditional churches have been basically outcompeted through the mechanism of secularism... allowing equal or greater social emphasis to be placed in areas such as environmentalism and social liberalism, with an emphasis on division into labels such as LGBTQIA+ and skin colors... or as I call it Modern Puritanism.
A primary step in establishing a religion is to establish Good and Evil. In church Woke for example I am the evil white male. Being a "southern" white male makes me a special kind of EVIL! This new religion has defined good or evil around primitive, visible markers of intersectionality. A narrative of "oppression" and "guilt" drives this separation between good and evil while a virtue of temperance in pursuit of wealth and environmental awareness are the hallmarks of the Woke.
In the 1940's any evidence or proof which holds up the church would be widely broadcasted to the public...no matter if it was true or not. See the Virgin Mary in your burnt toast?-Send in that picture to your local paper and become an instant celebrity! A tree in your yard has the image of Christ on the ferruled bark of the trunk?-Get the word out and charge admission to a mass exodus of believers to your yard! For church Woke the same applies however with a leaning into the evil... a white male shooting a black male is broadcast widely.... a millimeter of sea rise or subsidence is the focus.... tales of historical oppression are embraced... wide scale death due to non-conformity is the headline (not staying home with your mask on like you are told) basically anything supporting the narrative framework is promoted.
I call it Puritanism because this new religion carries a strict adherence to doctrine. If you question the doctrine or are identified as the evil side.... you are burned at the stake! In the form of cancel culture! Individual, independent, critical thinking is not good for religions! It will not be tolerated! If you don't follow the accepted narrative you will be censured on social media. The 1st Amendment??? That only applies to one side! Go out of bounds far enough and not only will you be censured but the church will cancel you totally and ruin your life! Recently a kid at Kansas State University put out a tasteless, stupid, hateful tweet basically stating "George Floyd is finally off drugs". 25 years ago a kid would simply say something like this randomly, like stupid kids do and nothing would have come of it. Unfortunately in this new era of church Woke... this young mans entire life has been ruined... he has been burned at the stake! Now I am not defending this kid and I am not saying this is an example of good critical thinking... but he is just a kid! Who among us has not said absolutely stupid stuff? We have all been witches worthy of the burn stake. For this kid... torch his feet a bit but not totally burn him at the stake!
As I observe all this... I keep asking.... Why do we do this madness? It's 2020 and we have regressed back to yankee puritanism of the 1600's??? Why? Why? Why?
Why..... because it is deep in our DNA. Those who followed the norms and religions unquestionably produced more successful little DNA packages. But are we totally bound by these evolutionary rules? OR ARE WE HUMANS? CAN WE RISE ABOVE? I believe we can question the dogma! It is one of the things that makes us human! Critical thinking and questioning all narratives is the hallmark of truly rising above our basic animal being. Conforming to dogma is simply being a basic animal. Religions love Pavlov's dog predictable behavior.... Religions hate individual thinking and FREEDOM. Remember freedom and individual thinking has not always benefited us in an evolutionary sense as a K-selected species. I do not mean for this essay to be pro religion or anti liberalism... my goal is to simply point out WHY... Why do we blindly follow religions as sheep? Why do we set up institutions where you are NOT ALLOWED TO QUESTION THEM? Why do we divide and assign people to the good tribe or the evil tribe? Church Woke exist because of our DNA program... this does not mean Church Woke is the best way to produce successful new DNA packages... It means simply that Church Woke fills the need deep in our psyche for conformity. As secularism, science and tech has broken down traditional religions Church Woke simply showed up to fill the void. Unfortunately evolution is not efficient or directional and often random in the short time period of our individual lives- random, erratic and very expensive on the personal level.
WHY? Why do we fall into the dogma trap?
IT IS IN OUR DNA. For the foreseeable future we are doomed to religious dogmatic thinking...Puritanism. It is how we are programmed to think. That ancient program which creates the most viable DNA packages to carry into the future. In the end are final grade is how many viable DNA packages did you raise to adulthood to produce more viable DNA packages. So get used to CHURCH WOKE... religion is as strong as ever in our society... it did not decline only changed form. The Church remains central to our society. Our DNA wants it. WELCOME TO CHURCH WOKE.