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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • AIGBusted

    Isn’t Michael Murray Madeline Murray’s son?

    Anyway, I think religious belief evolving in some way is not good news for the religious. For one thing, it flies in the face of the original thinking that Judaism (or any other religion) began with miracles, a relationship with God, and divine revelation. Instead it posits that belief is just an adaptation, perhaps to unify human beings into a group, or a quirk in the brain (like hyperactive agency detection). That is very weird indeed to think of God using an indirect route to bring about religious belief.

    Anyway, you should check out my blog, “Answers in Genesis BUSTED!”


  • Taner Edis

    AIGbusted: “Isn’t Michael Murray Madeline Murray’s son?”

    That’s William J. Murray. Michale Murray is no relation, as far as I know.

    Keep busting AIG, though…

  • Keith Parsons

    To count as a true “sensus divinitatis,” an innate faculty that when properly functioning gives us warranted belief in God, we must, of course, have some reason to think that the mechanism that disposes us to believe is epistemically reliable. However, the belief-forming mechanisms discussed in the literature are anything but. They would work just as well whether there were a God or not. The HADD, the hyperactive agency detection device Dennett talks about is designed to serve the evolutionarily beneficial purpose of detecting possibly useful or malevolent agents in the natural environment. The same goes for the spontaneous tendency to anthropomorphize that Stewart Guthrie postulates. For David Sloan Wilson, a shared religiosity confers survival benefits on groups, whether or not those shared beliefs are true. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer likewise propose belief-inducing mechanisms that are evolutionarily advantageous whether or not they are epistemically reliable. Further, all that such mechanisms seem to produce is a generalized propensity to believe in supernatural agents. There is no “Yahweh” gene or brain module. Particular beliefs are, of course, cultural constructs.

  • larryniven

    Parsons has it right, but only explains it halfway (i.e., that evolution explains supernatural beliefs just fine). The rest of the story is that Christianity in particular and theistic systems in general will do a really poor job of explaining these same phenomena if only they become a bit more specific. Notably missing from this conception of warranted theistic belief are thresholds. That is, how many people have to have a type of belief before we are allowed to recognize it as warranted? Or, for how long must this belief persist? Most importantly, in the case of conflicting beliefs, how do we decide which to prioritize? That is, if theists make this concept rigorous enough to test and we find that certain beliefs jive with Christianity but others don’t, what other justification can be used to reject the ones that are incompatible with Christianity? Apologists have quite plainly already done this – preemptively, of course, since the concept is too vague to establish candidate beliefs in the first place – but never say why their system gets special treatment. The same, though, would be true of any particular theistic system unless we specially construct it to match the actual patterns of beliefs we discover. So, in essence, this idea can be applied in a manner that supports religion only if it’s applied with no logical consistency or if it’s applied to an ad-hoc religion. Neither of those options makes for a particularly compelling case, though.

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