Evolution’s Place? 4 (RJS)

Evolution’s Place? 4 (RJS) September 3, 2009

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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