Religions as (bio-)cultural traditions – Examples from Islam and Christianity
Many people think of religions as kind of blocks falling from the sky. But from a scientific and evolutionary perspective, living religions are more like rivers - starting from a well (already embedded in other traditions), then turning in various and quite often surprising directions, branching off into numerous variants and never stopping to flow. Even those religious traditions that seem to "stand still" - for example Old Order Mennonites or ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim) turn out to be in constant motion. In fact, the ongoing struggles between changes and traditions and the formation of variants are among the main reasons of their evolutionary potential! And in order to get their message across, religious "reformers" such as in the Christian "reformation" are claiming to get rid of "wrong" cultural traditions by returning to the original well. The new is legitimated as springing from the pure origin.
To emphasize the point, let's take a look at the two biggest world religions: Islam and Christianity.
Here is a TED-talk by the Turkish Muslim reformer Mustafa Akyol, criticizing Arabian traditions such as strict gender separation as later aditions to the original message.
Or let's take a look at one of my main fields of study: Religious demography. We can summarize that throughout the world religions, the religiously active tend to have more children than their secular neighbors. But then, this statistic correlation is only an outcome of a multitude of religious variants ranging from the (inevitably) dwindling childless to potentially growing high-fertile groups.
For example, both the all-celibate Shakers and the high-fertile Old Order Amish belong to the Protestant branch of Christianity within the United States of America. Both traditions fled from Europe and entered the religious competition. One is about to go extinct, the other one just reached 250.000 members, doubling it's numbers about every twenty years and sprouting a new church district every three-and-a-half weeks. Thus, while the higher fertility is clearly winning and shaping the statistics, one has to explore the existing religious traditions and their histories to understand the evolutionary processes at hand.
If you would like to read more about the Amish (which I studied in detail for this very reason), here is an English chapter about them for free:
And as this religious tradition originated in Switzerland and Germany, but went extinct and almost forgotten among our German-speaking publics here, I recently published a German sciebook about them.
I dedicate this blogpost to Katheryn, who not only encouraged blogging very kindly but also made me aware of Akyols speech by sending a link to 11 great TED-talks on religion. Thanks for both, Katheryn!