The gods designed us to believe?

Michael J. Murray and Jeffrey Schloss will soon be coming out with The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Evolution of Religion. Though I’ve encountered a review that consists of praise by an Intelligent Design proponent, it promises to be serious as well as likely disappointing. I’ve encountered both Schloss and Murray before. Schloss is a biologist, a sharp guy, and he has important things to say about the biological basis for religion. Murray, on the other hand, is a philosopher, and I’ve been far less impressed by his arguments. It should be an interesting pairing.

Murray’s arguments come out of a standard theistic toolkit. For example, he says that most of our cognitive features, honed by evolution, can be taken as trustworthy. The universal human tendency toward supernatural belief is no exception. Just as in theistic evolution, evolution becomes the way God creates; God now arranges for us to apprehend realities beyond the merely material.

Superficially, such an argument has some plausibility, but I think that vanishes pretty quickly when you get to know the details of how current evolutionary explanations of religion proceed. So it should be interesting to see if with Schloss on board, Murray handles the details better. I doubt it. Nothing in what we know gives gods any causal role in the evolution of religion or any other cognitive feature of humans. At best, what Murray might get is a demonstration that some variety of attenuated theism is compatible with a naturalistic account of the evolution of religion. But that is no achievement. The existence of some attenuated form of Santa Claus is compatible what we know, but it’s still crazy to believe in him. In the end, I expect what Murray and Schloss are looking for is excuses to hold on to pre-existing forms of faith.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University