The new revelation

Have aeons of natural selection hardwired human beings to be religious?
Denyse O'Leary | Dec 31 2009 | comment  



The recent spate of articles and books purporting to explain religion without the idea that God exists and communicates with man has produced some interesting specimens. In an article under the intriguing title of "Satan, the great motivator", journalist Michael Fitzgerald reports that: "A pair of Harvard researchers recently examined 40 years of data from dozens of countries, trying to sort out the economic impact of religious beliefs or practices. They found that religion has a measurable effect on developing economies -- and the most powerful influence relates to how strongly people believe in hell."

Most likely, belief in hell correlates with the idea that one's actions matter in the long run. Fitzgerald outlines research on how religion aids social development, principally by creating greater levels of public trust. We learn, for example, that ultra-Orthodox Jews dominate New York’s diamond trade "because of levels of trust based on religion."

However, this leaves two important questions unanswered. In a religiously divided and intolerant society, religious-based trust covers only "true believers" -- those of a different religion are often treated with distrust and hostility. This is hardly a recipe for social development, or even social peace. In North America, religion increases trust because of the historically high level of tolerance as well as commitment.

For example, the millions who shop at the immensely popular discount chain WalMart probably don't know that in 1991 (the year before his death) founder Sam Walton gave $6 million, including an endowment of $3 million for annual awards to new church developments, to share the Christian faith. They would not have minded if Walton were an Orthodox Jew sending the money to Israeli hospitals or a devout Muslim helping to fund the travelling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. This is not due merely to heedless consumerism among the chain's predominantly lower middle class customers. Rather, their level of intergroup trust is high. Indeed, intergroup trust in North America is so high that it is sometimes abused, as when the nineteen 9/11 terrorists took advantage of the fact that most Americans did not distrust Muslims as such.

The other nagging question is, should we pursue religion for the sake of prosperity? You never read that in the Bible, quite the opposite. "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed," Christ said. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." If people want religion for prosperity, wouldn't it be organized hypocrisy, propped up by fear of hell? People who have a loving relationship with God do not fear hell.

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade has tried to reconcile people of faith to the claim that they are "hard-wired" to believe because Darwin's natural selection favours belief. Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times and the author of The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, writes,

That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.
In other words, it was genetic predisposition and culture, not revelation. Wade comforts his religious readers with the fact that some Darwinists entertain the idea of "group selection" -- long denounced by the majority of Darwinists, who favour the "selfish gene". If so, group cultural practices might favour a religious group:
... group selection has recently gained two powerful champions, the biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, who argued that two special circumstances in recent human evolution would have given group selection much more of an edge than usual. One is the highly egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, which makes everyone behave alike and gives individual altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. The other is intense warfare between groups, which enhances group-level selection in favor of community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and religion.
Well, David Sloan Wilson is an atheist and Edward O. Wilson wavers between atheism and deism -- in the meantime, he patronizes people of faith by inventing theories about how religion evolved: "Humans have an innate tendency to form religious belief. It has a lot of beneficial influences. It helps people adjust to their mortality and it binds communities tightly together . . . to have evolved such a powerful tendency and to hold it unto death, that looks like a biological adaptation." 

It looks like he is the diplomatic wing, operating by suavity rather than stridency.  But it is hard not to notice the arrogance and condescension these people feel for those who have come to the rational conclusion that God exists, based on the fine tuning of the universe, the design of life, and their own encounters with God, to say nothing of changed lives.

E.O. Wilson has been trying to find "common ground" with Christians in recent years. But what common ground does Wilson hope for? To him, there is no revelation, and faith does not arise from an encounter with God. Rather, we have an "innate tendency" to form beliefs -- just as a squirrel has an innate tendency to gather nuts in the fall and a spider has an innate tendency to eat her mate. Based on recent events in many nations, people of faith might better focus on maintaining or introducing freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. There is no common ground with evolutionary psychologists.

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

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