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Can evolution explain religion?

Evolutionary psychologists offer two contradictory explanations for the existence of religion. They can't both be right, but they can both be wrong.
Denyse O'Leary | 10 December 2009

In a recent issue of the leading journal Science , Elizabeth Culotta offers a variety of speculations in an article titled "On the Origin of Religion." Explaining religion without God is quite the growth industry these days among evolutionary psychologists. Some argue that religion exists because it increases evolutionary fitness (survival of the fittest). Others argue that it makes no difference to fitness. It is merely a glitch in our thinking that doesn't kill us off.

They can't both be right, but they could both be wrong. Let's see.

Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff of the University of British Columbia claimed last year in Science that religion evolved because it made people more cooperative, hence more fit, thus increasing survival rates. As ScienceDaily explains, cross-disciplinary studies found that religious societies showed more co-operation than non-religious ones, especially under threat and that religiosity increases trust and that belief in God reduces cheating and selfishness.

"This type of religiously-motivated 'virtuous' behaviour has likely played a vital social role throughout history," says Shariff, a Psychology PhD student. Then Norenzayan qualifies:

"Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular," says Norenzayan. "People have found other ways to be cooperative – without God."
Actually, his John Lennon retro Imagine There's No Heaven thesis was pretty much refuted by the atheist totalitarian monstrosities of the 20th century, where trust was minimal and co-operation was an alternative to getting shot or imprisoned.

Even today, co-operative secular societies in Europe do a poor job of dealing with, for example, rising Islamism. They do not co-operate to protect civil liberties; they capitulate. People who believe in nothing beyond their own preferences and security cannot win against people who believe in specific ideas and accept risk as the price of establishing them. Pure secularism only stands a chance against a fanatical politicised religion if it morphs into a totalitarian state which dispenses with civil liberties. And not a good chance either. By contrast, in Canada, Christians, Jews, and Muslims -- as well as others -- have fought back hard recently and are winning against Islamists. The Canadians who (so far) have derailed Islamic political censorship posing as religion are passionately committed to a Canada -- founded "on the principles of the supremacy of God and the rule of law." But these principles, on which our civil liberties are based, were not applied in recent "human rights" cases brought by Islamists -- until serious monotheists insisted they be applied. So doesn't that show that religion creates fitness via co-operation?

Well, no, not really. It is true that in Canada traditional, mostly religious, citizens -- completely fed up -- have co-operated to help bring down Leviathan. But fitness is not a relevant criterion unless we first establish a key question: For what ought we to be fit? All of the disparate "free speechers" would be far more personally fit behind a tax-funded desk, launching persecutions on behalf of favoured pressure groups or grievance mongers.

But we seek a better country. Evolutionary psychology should not go there, or even visit.

Now for the other side: Some researchers claim that religion does not confer fitness; it just fails to kill you before you have kids who grow up. Arguing that religion is an accidental byproduct of evolution, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, a self-declared atheist, explains that we tend to see inanimate objects as having "beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness," and that this tendency is central to religious beliefs:

Taking his cues from Darwin, Bloom posits that our spiritual tendencies emerged somewhere in the evolutionary process, most likely as "accidental by-products" of other traits because "as a species, humans have an unprecedented knack for finding patterns and reading intentions." Unfortunately, to Bloom's mind, this tendency to read intelligence into everything sometimes gets out of hand ...
His primary evidence seems to be little children's views of whether something is a conscious agent or not. The trouble is, small children don't know very much about the world, so they cannot decide until they gain more experience. The same child who talks earnestly to his teddy will toss it aside a year or two later in favour of Nintendo. For The Atlantic, Bloom cited as evidence the piece of toast Virgin Mary (fetched $28 000 on the Internet) and the kidnapped Nun Bun (a cinnamon bun supposedly showing Mother Teresa's face, object of some amazing antics). And, as we all know, this stuff is mainstream Catholicism... right?

Bloom seems oblivious to the fact that atheism predisposes him to think that a divine source for the universe is false, just as religion disposes others to think it true. So if "evolution" accounts for Mother Teresa's or Gandhi's beliefs, what accounts for his? He will reply triumphantly, "Science!" But it's not clear that any of this stuff is science. It all sounds more like an atheist's feeble attempt to explain the universe and life sans God.

These and many similar materialist accounts of religion have one common trait: They assume, without evidence, that God does not exist. So God did not speak, for example, to Abraham in the stirring words of the book of Genesis: "the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. Therefore all explanations must appeal either to survival of the fittest or random, harmless aberrations, however implausible the explanations sound, and however inadequately they account for experience.

In reality, every day, many people change their lives dramatically because of an encounter with God. It is not easy to change one's life. A better explanation is that they did encounter a real Person -- the only absolutely real Person.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | evolution, evolutionary psychology, religion
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