Evolution’s Place? 4 (RJS)

I will return to consider the next chapters of Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe next week. Today I would like to take a brief detour and consider another question. Many authors – Dawkins and others – have made popular the idea that religion, belief in God, and morality, among other things are either natural consequences or by-products of survival of the fittest and the preservation of the Selfish Gene.  Religion has a purely natural explanation. An article a year or so ago in The New Scientist asserted Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests – described the development of a computer program to simulate and thus explain the development of religion.

In his chapter on The Roots of Religion in The God Delusion Dawkins writes:

Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution, we should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favored the impulse to religion. The question gains urgency from standard Darwinian considerations of economy. Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. (p. 163)

and later in the chapter he gives his own view – religion is a by-product.

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival… But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility.  The inevitable byproduct is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. (p. 176)

What role if any does evolution play in the development of religion?

Dawkins’s language – his use of words – is designed to manipulate. After all who wants to be slavishly gullible or infected by a mind virus? Who wants to be made a fool – unable to distinguish between good advice (avoid crocodile infested waters) and bad advice (sacrifice a goat – and rain will come)?

But this view is simplistic and limited in scope – evolution, evolvability, and the gene itself are products of the structure of a finely-tuned universe. Evolution works within the constraints of the natural universe.

In Weekly Meanderings a while ago Scot linked to an article in Slate Evolution’s place in a created universe. In this article William Salaten Saletan takes the ideas advanced by Conway Morris and considers other possible ramifications in the development of religion. Salaten Saletan suggests that religion is a product of natural selection, cultural evolution, and is also God’s truth. From the end of his article:

Life originally emerged from an architecture of physical and chemical laws. So natural selection isn’t the first level of the cosmic order; it’s at least the second or third. Why should we assume the architecture stops there?  … Natural selection has become a tremendous tool for understanding biology. But it wasn’t the first kind of science we invented, and it won’t be the last. The notion that major components of our society or its development, such as religion, must be explained entirely through natural selection is no more scientific than the notion that they must be explained through physics or chemistry. All of these sciences, these levels of order, work together. We are physical, chemical, biologically designed, culturally guided organisms. If this complex, multitiered, gradually emerging architecture is the concept of God we’re heading toward, then yes, God owes plenty to Darwin. And Darwin owes plenty to God.

What do you think? Can evolution “explain” religion? More importantly does such explanation demonstrate that all religions are untrue – or does a “natural” explanation only point again to God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Larry

    The funny thing is, even if everything that Dawkins, et.al., say about the development of religion is true, it says absolutely nothing about whether or not those religious ideas are true or not. Maybe evolution is how God reveals Himself. I’m sure it would also be possible to come up with an evolutionary explanation for both evolution and atheism, but Dawkins wouldn’t then think that this disproved evolution or atheism. The genealogy of an idea says nothing about its validity.

  • dopderbeck

    First, if Dawkins is correct, and we take his logic all the way to its conclusion, then every human claim to knowledge and truth also is a product of evolution — including “science.” If I am hardwired to accept authority, that includes the authority of those who speak on behalf of “science” as well as those who speak on behalf of “religion.” Ergo, if I want to be an independent thinker, I ought to reject Dawkins’ proselytizing of the view that “science” explains away “religion.” But then I also have to ask, why ought I to want to be an “independent thinker?” The belief that “independent thought” is “good” also is something I first learned from various authorities, from Sesame Street to my grade school teachers.
    Second, if we are generally hardwired by evolution to accept authority and to seek “transcendence,” that hardly is an indictment of Christian and other religious accounts of human nature. Christians, after all, proclaim that human beings are made in “God’s image,” which among other things includes a capacity and desire to fellowship with God. If the evidence shows that at least part of that capacity and desire is embedded in our biological evolutionary history, then we simply have learned at least part of how God caused us to have these capacities and desires. As usual, Dawkins fails to understand the classical Christian notion of primary and secondary causation, or any other notion of causation that isn’t derived from a strictly materialist ontology. In short, he’s just begging the question.

  • pds

    If you are consistent with your God of the Gaps criticism of ID, it seems that you have to admit that any assertion that evolution does not explain religion, is a God of the Gaps argument too. Science will eventually explain religion. Any suggestion otherwise is a God of the Gaps argument.
    Of course, I don’t buy your argument that ID is inherently a God of the Gaps argument.
    As to your question, evolution can try to explain religion. It is speculative, and I think the counter-arguments are better. No way you can answer that question without non-scientific philosophical and worldview questions coming into play.

  • Rick

    I agree with Larry and Dopderbeck, this is a weak argument against religion.
    Doesn’t much of this fall into the whole “meme” concept. I believe it was Alister McGrath that pointed out that the idea is not scientifically verifiable, so it is interesting that Dawkins uses this argument as some kind of evidence. McGrath also (I believe) points out that Dawkins conveniently sees himself as immune from any kind of “mind virus” problems, so is above it all.
    David Robertson, author of The Dawkins Letters, wrote (to Dawkins):
    “Why are people so religious? As you point out evolutionary psychologist Paul Bloom tells us that we are naturally dualists believing that there is a difference between mind and matter. Bloom even suggests that we are innately predisposed to be creationists. Dorothy Kelman points out that children are intuitive theists. I would actually agree with this and respectively suggest that this evidence contradicts another atheist myth – that people are only religious because they have been brainwashed as children. In actual fact the default positions for humans is to be religious. It takes the ‘education’ of secularists to get them to a ‘higher consciousness’ (in other words to disbelieve what they would naturally believe). Can I make a tentative suggestion to you? That the reason that human beings worship is that there is someone to worship? ….You cite the following in your attack upon those of us who are deluded by our belief in God – “Self deception is hiding the truth from the conscious mind the better to hide if from others”. “There is a tendency for humans consciously to see what they wish to see”. Perhaps the boot is on the other foot. What if there is an Atheist Delusion – where we delude ourselves that our natural God consciousness within is not real? That the evidence is not really evidence at all? And that God does therefore not exist? Would not the Psalmist’s description be right? “The Fool has said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14 v. 1).”
    What is serious about this is the fact that if Dawkins sees this as a natural selection issue, and that it must be eliminated from the culture so that the “virus” does not spread to children, he opens the door to those who want to advocate extreme measures to stamp out the virus. They will become the “antibodies”.

  • Larry

    Doesn’t much of this fall into the whole “meme” concept.
    Yes, but, of course, the whole “meme” concept is a really stupid meme.

  • RJS

    I do not consider ID to be a homogeneous concept.
    There are forms of discussion of intelligent design arguments that are, I think, garbage. I will say so in no uncertain terms.
    There are other forms of intelligent design arguments that pose interesting questions worth discussing – some of the interesting proposals are not holding up to examination (irreducible complexity is one of these), the jury is out on others.
    There are other forms of intelligent design arguments that are not so much scientific as metaphysical – these are really the crux of the discussion of “explanations for religion” as I see it.
    Of course – as I believe in God and in his work within the world with his people and through Jesus, I do hold to a form of intelligent design.

  • dopderbeck

    pds — I don’t think it’s a gap argument. It’s an argument against reductionism. Arguments against reductionism don’t have to depend on gaps. An explanation for a system can be complete at its own level of explanation, but that doesn’t preclude additional levels of explanation. This is particularly the case for complex systems that give rise to emergent properties.

  • RJS

    Good point – and I made the mistake of responding more to an ongoing discussion than the particular example at hand.

  • Dru

    Agreed that Dawkins is begging the question, big time. Have not read the book. But from the excerpts, could you not argue that either 1) Dawkins himself is an evolutionary throwback, a more primitive life form, lacking in the impulse to religion that Evolution has found so necessary and helpful; or 2) he represents the new stage of evolutuion, a higher life form, now that Evolution is done with the primitive necessity of religion, higher human beings like himself have evolved beyond that vestigial appendage. Which makes us throwbacks.
    Fully agreed we need to meet serious questions/arguments with serious reasons for the hope within us. Increasingly hard to take Dawkins seriously.

  • RJS

    It may be hard to take Dawkins seriously – but his view of religion, although expressed in less antagonistic form, is widely accepted. One of the things I would like to discuss here, although the topic is to big for one post I expect, is how to provide reasonable discussion points that counters this “beneficial by-product” view.
    Many students sent off to college will counter the argument in one form or another time and time again.

  • James

    “some of the interesting proposals are not holding up to examination (irreducible complexity is one of these”
    Could you point to some information on this? The latest I heard, some months ago was about a proposed method by which one example of irreducibility could have naturally formed, but was not itself open to examination, and on the face of it, was implausible. I’d be interested to see if we’re thinking of the same thing.
    As for the main question, as has been pointed out more eloquently, this comes down to dogmatics. Those with underlying evolutionary assumptions (be they naturalist, materialist, or theist), propose that religion has evolutionary roots, and then make a model that supports it.
    My take, is that we have a preexistent God who made Himself known, first by speaking the universe into existence, and then revealing Himself to mankind, directly and through prophets, and ultimately through the perfect revelation, Jesus Christ. That’s where religion comes from.

  • Dru

    Yep, certainly agree. I would want to argue just a little bit that in the give and take of answering critics or preparing students, that there is a place for observing that the emperor has no clothes. Some critics just need to be laughed at. Most don’t. On target sarcasm directed at puffed up arrogance can be a good thing. As do you, I take the cultural pressure re religion dead serious.
    Re discussion points, two come to mind immediately. One is an “extension of the argument”. What would the world be like if all people were just like Dawkins? If all were just like the Buddha? All like Mohammed? All like Jesus? Not suggesting as an “answer” but as fruitful discussion.
    Another is more personal. I wonder if Dawkins loves anyone? Or has ever been loved by someone? I would hope so. What was the nature of that love? Mere chemical reactions? Has he ever been moved by beauty? Was that merely some form of survival mechanism? Is his vision of the human experience as dead, dull and stark as it appears to be? Is that really the landscape of the soul in which our students want to live? Again, seems fruitful for dialogue.

  • pds

    dop #7 and RJS, I agree. We all agree that you can make non-Gap arguments in this context. My point is that the God of the Gaps critique is inaccurate in other contexts where RJS has asserted it. No need to rehash those here though.
    A topic related to the evolution of religion is the evolution of morality and evolutionary ethics. I just listened to a good podcast on Richard Weikert’s new book on that topic:

  • RJS

    Consider this,
    If God exists and if he uses evolutionary means of creation, then the human search for God and human religion could have developed through “natural” means as a response to a real stimulus – interaction with the personal creator God. This could be analogous in some ways to the way eyes developed in response to light.
    It seems to me that the argument that the only way we could develop a sense of God or religion or morality is through God is a “Gap” argument and it can be damaged severely by any other plausible argument.
    On the other hand to make a demand of ontological naturalism is to rule out the existence of God from the start. This is of course the approach that many take.
    But – if one allows the existence of God – than perhaps many of the hypothesized natural mechanisms for morality and a belief in the supernatural merely point to God’s preferred way of interacting with the world.
    I don’t know and have no firm conviction here — just thinking.

  • BenB

    I think that if it hasn’t already been proven that religion is a byproduct of natural selection, it won’t be long until it is. Likewise, I think cultural evolution has a lot to say on how that product itself has evolved. Check out Robert Wright’s book “The Evolution of God.” I think it’s excellent.
    I see no reason why, in traditional terms, we can’t say that God chose to (being the God who works through natural processes) reveal himself through natural selection. I also think that it’s an even easier task in process theology, which is why I’ve never had any problem with the concept.
    I think the major point here is that a naturalistic explanation of religion doesn’t negate it’s veracity or it’s value. Also, I think it’s very easy for any Christian to affirm that God is a God who we experience in the natural order (and supernatural revelation/relation is very limited – if existent at all) and it likewise makes sense that God would be a god who would have used the natural order as a vehicle for bringing His beloved creation into knowledge of Himself.
    I also think these natural explanations of God’s work are far more beautiful and compelling than supernatural ones. Each time Dawkins and other people find something which is too natural to fit into their narrow, supernaturalist, fundamentalist scheme of religion – I find that my God just got much more beautiful, much more powerful, and much more awe-inspiring.

  • RJS

    Robert Wright’s books plays a significant role in the thinking behind Salaten’s article linked in the post above, although I don’t think that he really agrees with Wright.
    But I think that there are real problems with Wright’s thinking. For one thing it leaves a pretty deistic God doesn’t it? Certainly not a God consistent with the God revealed in scripture.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS said: It seems to me that the argument that the only way we could develop a sense of God or religion or morality is through God is a “Gap” argument and it can be damaged severely by any other plausible argument.
    I respond: Now I’m going to channel my inner Barth / Torrance / Polanyi. As a Christian theist, I assert that the only way to develop a sense of anything is through God. Everything that exists is contingent on God’s creative will; this is axiomatic for my system of thought (or “properly basic” as the Reformed Epistemologists put it). “Morality” without God is, ultimately, absurd, and the resources of human reason and experience help show this absurdity.
    But — there is no “natural theology” that indubitably demonstrates these assertions. We do not learn that “morality without God is absurd” through studying natural history, because the science of natural history simply does not offer this kind of level of explanation. We may find consiliences and resonances, but trying to prove or disprove a case for God and morality based on the presence or absence of “gaps” in natural history is mistaken at a basic level.

  • RJS,
    This is me being pedantic, but it’s “Saletan”, not “Salaten”.

  • RJS

    Sometimes pedantic is good – I’ve corrected in the post.

  • pds

    RJS #14,
    I see your point and I think it is interesting. Someone could still argue it is a gap argument, because even if the human response is “natural,” it posits a supernatural being who prompts the response, instead of completely natural explanations all the way down (or up).
    I think the gap attack fails because there is positive evidence for God from other sources, so it is unreasonable to rule out God as an explanation a priori.
    All these discussions have prompted me to think through the meaning of “natural” and “supernatural.” In one sense God is the most natural thing there is. He is the source of nature and all matter. The exercise of his power is completely “natural” to him. So miracles are in that sense natural.
    When Jesus walked on water, what exactly happened to the water and/or his feet and/or the space between his feet and the water? Did something measurable come between them? Are miracles just God using special “natural” forces that we just don’t understand yet and that we don’t see in operation on a regular basis?
    These questions make me think we should not draw our categories too narrowly.

  • Danimal

    James 11 wrote: “”some of the interesting proposals are not holding up to examination (irreducible complexity is one of these”
    Could you point to some information on this? The latest I heard, some months ago was about a proposed method by which one example of irreducibility could have naturally formed, but was not itself open to examination, and on the face of it, was implausible. I’d be interested to see if we’re thinking of the same thing.”
    Kenneth Miller has presented his case for the the evolution of the vertebrae blood clotting cascade, contrary to Michael Behe in ‘Darwins Black Box’ where he IRC, claims the blood clotting cascade is irreducibly complex.
    Link here: http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/DI/clot/Clotting.html

  • pds

    Further thought on my last comment: I am reminded of what Charles Finney said about revivals not being miracles:
    “It is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means–as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.”
    I don’t know that I agree, but I like the quote, partly because I know that it can make hyper-Calvinist heads explode.

  • James

    To you point about preparing a reasonable defense for students:
    For this sort of thing, I would encourage the student to not allow the atheist to control the langauge. Neither revelation or science speak in any sort of clear manner about a “God gene”. The only reason that a lot of people take it seriously, as you point out, is that it’s the model that fits the model that fits with a life lacking accountability to a just and holy God.
    So does the idea of a “God gene” fit the evolutionary model? Yes, yes, yes. And would such a gene, if found, account for what we see in anthropology and in modern man? Yes, yes, yes.
    Does revelation also account for it? Didn’t God say that he would write His law upon our hearts? Didn’t He say that His creation would cry out His glory? Didn’t He say that he’s made Himself known to everyone in some way or another? Well, that’s all meaningless if you *assume* that revelation is of human and not divine origens. But I think you’re on a lot firmer ground demonstrating that the Bible is in fact of divine origen, and letting the Word of God go out and trusting that it will not return void, than jumping into the prearranged cage match of sophistry about a “God gene” in a language that’s predefined to have them win.
    Ultimately I just don’t think it’s helpful to confine ourselves to someone else’s terms, when frankly, they’re not on good footing to begin with.

  • pds

    James #11 and Danimal #21
    I commented previously on this topic. Behe has defended himself against Miller’s criticisms. Below are two links- one to Miller and one to Dembski critiquing Miller. You be the judge.
    Miller attacking IC:
    Dembski defending IC:
    I see serious logical errors in Miller. For example, he concludes:
    “The existence of the TTSS in a wide variety of bacteria demonstrates that a small portion of the “irreducibly complex” flagellum can indeed carry out an important biological function. Since such a function is clearly favored by natural selection, the contention that the flagellum must be fully-assembled before any of its component parts can be useful is obviously incorrect. What this means is that the argument for intelligent design of the flagellum has failed.”
    Showing independent functionality of a component does not defeat IC. Miller still has to show that the assembly of the rotary propulsion machine could have been accomplished by Darwinian mechanisms: step by step assembly with each step providing a survival advantage. He also has to show that each step does not involve too much survival disadvantage in the loss of the previous functionality of the components.
    He seems to think that speculation as to a “possible” pathway is enough. He has to show that it is plausible.
    His claim that the functionality of the TTSS defeats IC is so obviously wrong. I wonder who is convinced by bad logic like this?

  • I like some of R. Wright’s thinking, but was really frustrated (and disappointed in his credibility) when, on the Charlie Rose show, he described Jesus as basically a typical Jewish apocalyptic prophet who ended in failure; unlike Mohammad, whom Wright described as an adept political success.
    Still, all that said, I highly recommend checking out both Charlie Rose’s and Bill Moyers’ interviews with Wright (both are available online). Very engaging stuff.
    Even if I disagree with his conclusions, Wright sets off on some trails that I think are really interesting, and revealing. And I think, as religious people, we have to be honest and acknowledge the progression of concepts we see in scripture; even if this challenges some people’s traditional understandings of “inspired” scripture.
    A topic for another day, RJS?

  • RJS

    I don’t really want to get into detail here – because I want to deal with the issue in posts looking at specific issues but…
    On Miller – I don’t think his argument alone defeats irreducible complexity, but it is a step toward that. Independently functioning units are often recruited for other function in evolutionary pathways. Thus demonstrating a separate function also demonstrates that the unit could be available to be recruited. With various building blocks like this plausible or “possible” (and this is a judgment call because I can say anything and you can question its plausibility) mechanisms can be envisioned often, with natural bridge type features – pieces used at earlier stages have disappeared leaving the appearance of irreducible complexity.
    But my real argument with irreducible complexity (not intelligent design) is theological not scientific.

  • pds

    Yeah, I don’t really want to get into it either. I just pasted that in because the question was asked. Anybody interested can go to the links and decide for themselves.
    I find the other points you raised in this thread more interesting.

  • BenB

    I can’t say I agree with all of R. Wright’s conclusions. Yes, he seems to point towards a deistic god. However, I think his points, questions, and ideas can be very stimulating and can be adapted into a theistic construct with a God who has been actively involved throughout time and our understanding of him is indicative of our evolving give-and-take relationship with him between what we’ve thought we’ve needed/wanted and what God’s offered (what we’ve really needed) all along.

  • Early man is walking along in an area not unlike sub-Saharan Africa today. He thinks out of the corner of his eye he sees a lion, or a jaguar, or some horrific beast that wants to eat him for dinner.
    Two possible responses to this situation:
    #1 – The man believes what he thought he saw and runs for his life.
    #2 – The man calculates the rational probability of a man-eater hunting him and ultimately deduces that in light of clear proof he will not believe anything is following him.
    Man #1 survives and lives to tell the tail of his death defying ordeal.
    Man #2 will not survive if there really is a beast with an empty tummy following him, and the law of averages will predict that eventually he will lose on this one if not the first time.
    Result, those who are genetically predisposed for “belief” survive while those who demand proof often get it right before death and the end of their genetic line.
    All that said, evolution can surely account for Religion when stated in evolutionary terms. These are clever folks, me not being one of them.

  • Josh W

    I’ve heard this argument before, often using the idea of “emergence” to justify these levels of description. But actually I think they are flawed; physics really does want to explain everything, or at least say that “at base” everything is physics. But if that is to be truely done, and the problems of emergence avoided, physics must include within it representations of all the dynamics observed at all the other levels. In other words it must express the concepts of another feild in it’s own language. So in other words if we do find a evolutionary explaination of religion, it will probably include the selection pressure of divine justice or something! If not by that name.
    As a slightly stranger thing, sometimes people don’t like the heirarchy with physics at the bottem and try to make a new base, that explains physics from biology or symboloic logic or something. I wonder if this can work, and forms of description swallow the others so that each now stands as it’s own feet and explains all the others. For that kind of thing to work we would need christian explanations of chemistry, biology and physics, which doesn’t sound too far fetched, if not for the pragmatic focus of the bible! I suspect the best we can hope for is insights related to all the other stuff we have to learn.