Should religion go extinct? Should we accelerate evolution by killing off religion? Just as the Chicxulub asteroid 65 million years ago killed off 75% of life on Earth, including all non-avion dinosaurs, should we today take control of our evolutionary future by deselecting religion?
Religion should be selected out of the evolutionary process because it has outlived its adaptive usefulness. Oh yes, our ancestors needed religion at one time to establish altruistic communities that would care for selected populations. But the very tribal in-group loyalty that was once adaptive is now preventing the advance of rationality, restricting growth in scientific knowledge, and even preventing world peace. If we could replace religion with science, reason would then govern a single global society without conflict. Really? No, not really. So, just what is going on here?
Some anti-godders along with some theologians turn the analytical lenses of evolutionary theory toward the history of religion. What might this teach us? It appears that in the history of Homo sapiens that religion united communities in reciprocal altruism. Caring for one another contributed to the health of individuals who grew to reproductive age, or even longer. This insured that the genes of these communities would survive into future generations. Religious communities survived because they were fit.
What does an evolutionary interpterion of religion teach us about God? Nothing. Yet, we cannot sidestep this most important of questions. Is there a divine reality? Is this divine reality gracious or not? Do we need religion in order to enjoy life in relationship with God? Could God get along without human religion?
Religion is Irrational, Anti-Science, and Dangerous
The anti-godders in our society claim that science is on their side. Truth, justice, and peace are on their side. Is there any evidence to support this? Perhaps, yes.
During the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, what has made the news are religious yahoos who oppose vaccinations. “The blood of Jesus is my vaccine,” reads a protestor’s poster in a Sydney rally. Rev. Jackson Lahmayer of Sheridan Church in Tulsa will send you a religious exemption from Covid 19 vaccination or mask-wearing for only a $25 donation to his church. Yes, such examples suggest that religion is irrational and anti-science.
When political leaders insist that government mandated vaccines and masks “follow the science,” it is frustrating that such a dangerous anti-vax and anti-science force is at work in society. Does this in itself warrant the enforced extinction of religion?
Dangerous. That’s the way religion appears when looking at a very small screen. When we turn to a much larger screen, one that surveys the globe, we see that no major group opposes vaccinations, mask-wearying or public safety. The U.S. Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops along with the Vatican itself insist that receiving the Covid-19 vaccine is morally acceptable and responsible. On September 16, 2021, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America said that even if some individual persons might have good reasons for not receiving the vaccine, “there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons.” Spokespersons for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, along with pastors of Southern Baptist megachurches all agree: Get vaccinated! Wear masks! (Smith September 17, 2021).
In her attempt to survey the Orthodox Christian world, Scripps neuroscientist Hermina Nedelescu found that virtually all church leaders are strongly committed to following the science. The problem in an age of fake news and conspiracy theories is discerning just what is the most reliable science. In sum, today’s religious tribes are overwhelmingly reliant on science at its best.
Religion is an outdated evolutionary adaptation
If you’re anti-religious and pro-science, you may wish to switch categories so that religion becomes subsumed under science. One way is to give an evolutionary account of religion. Then, declare that this evolutionary account is superior to any account a theologian might give. This is the strategy pursued by anti-religious forces who wish to turn evolutionary science into the hegemonic worldview.
There are some things we can say about the history of religion that become illuminated from the light of evolutionary theory. “Religious phenomena are adaptations, not just useless by–products,” claims evolutionary theorist Terrence Deacon (Deacon 2012, 492). Religion, according to anthropologist Solomon Katz, is “a catalyst to promote cooperation and facilitate the emergence of the new moral leadership in scientific, technological, and political spheres” (Katz 24:2 1999, 238).
A bit more completely, evolution researcher Augustin Fuentes tells us this: “The human niche, our way of making it in the world, consists of extreme cooperation in complex social relationships, in childrearing, in foraging, in information sharing, and in the development of a symbolic, extended, and shared memory, wherein people, places, items, and relationships become imbued with meaning beyond their immediate sensory and temporal contexts” (Fuentes 72:2 2015, 177).
Evolutionary insights illuminate today’s religious adherents. What goes unnoticed, is that religious adherents are just as interested in the evolutionary interpretation as the anti-religious are. Theologians of the theistic evolution school, for example, like to hear from evolutionary theorists about the emergence of religion in our past. Such science gets incorporated into the theologian’s comprehensive grasp of God’s work within the creation. Theologians, for the most part, do not perceive a conflict with such science.
There are anti-religious belligerents, in contrast, who want to reduce everything spiritual to biology. This turns religion into a biological epiphenomenon. And a dispensable epiphenomenon at that.
“Clearly, religion is man-made,” according to the famed Franz De Wall, “so the question is what good does it do for us” (DeWaal 2013, 94-95). Religion does no good today. Is it time to rid us of religion?
Prominent among the anti-religious forces are those who believe atheism or agnosticism should patent scientific knowledge and prevent others from borrowing scientific authority. Like two species contending for the same evolutionary niche, science should adapt while religion go extinct.
Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson champions an Armageddon-like battle in which the scientific children of light will win a total victory over religious darkness. “Science…is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge….It is not just another way of knowing as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable” (Wilson 2012, 295). Religion should go extinct. Science should survive. Science alone should rule culture.
Unfit or not, religion should survive
Should religion go extinct like the dinosaurs? No.
It might be more accurate to say “Christianity is not under attack, it is under review,” avers Patheos columnist Karl Forehand. Christianity along with the other prominent religions of the world should be subjected to review. Peaceful human flourishing requires every dimension of culture, including both science and religion.
In this review, let’s get clear on a few items. First, religion and science are not like two species competing for the same cultural niche. Our global society needs both.
Second, neither science nor reason is the exclusive patent of atheism and agnosticism. Science and reason are the shared resource of Jews, Christians, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus, along with the spiritual but not religious. To the religious mind, science exposits the book of nature just as scripture exposits special revelation. “The most common attitude towards science in the Islamic world is to see it as an objective study of the world of nature, namely as a way of deciphering the signs of God in the cosmic book of the universe. Natural sciences discover the Divine codes built into the cosmos by its Creator, and in doing so, help the believer marvel at the wonders of God’s creation” (Kalin 2002, 48).
In brief, knowledge of God comes from two books. The book of nature is interpreted by scientists. The book of special revelation is interpreted by the faithful. We need both to grasp the wondrous works of God in our world.
Third, despite the so-called tribalism of previous centuries that characterized religious rivalry, today’s Parliament of the World’s Religions rallies a concerted effort to bring to our planet peace, justice, and compassion. In addition to combating the “virus” we know as Covid 19, we must also fight moral viruses such as racism and sexism,. This according to Stephen Avino when opening the 2021 Parlaiment. (1893 Parliament in Chicago)
Fourth, measuring religion according to criteria drawn from social contribution or natural selection misses the most important point. The decisive point is God. “The question of whether the world would be better off without religion has no logical bearing on the ontological question of God’s existence….the question of God’s existence is logically and factually independent of the question of whether belief in God’s existence is beneficial for the human species” (Lilienfeld 38:4 2014). In order to raise and appraise the question of God, we need theologians. Not scientists, let alone anti-religious malcontents.
On the one hand, the public theologian engages in discourse clarification so that we all can assess the claim to cultural hegemony by the anti-godders among us. Further, the public theologian engages in worldview construction, which incorporates scientific knowledge into a theology of nature.
On the other hand, religion is under review. Within this review, the theologian needs to examine self-critically religion’s foundations. This includes raising the questions of God. Two such questions. First, does God exist? Second, if God exists, is God gracious?
Answering these questions prepares us much more adequately than evolutionary theory to ask the question: should religion go extinct?
Ted Peters is a pastor, professor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. Visit: TedsTimelyTake.com.
Ted is emeritus professor of systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. His fictional thrillers feature an inner-city pastor, Leona Foxx, who courageously challenges the structures of political domination buttressed by the latest in science and technology.
Deacon, Terrence. 2012. Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Nature. New York: W W Norton.
DeWaal, Franz. 2013. The Bonobo and the Atheist. New York: W W Norton.
Fuentes, Augustin. 72:2 2015. “What evolution, the human niche, and imagination can tell us about the emergence of religion.” Theology Today 170-181.
Kalin, Ibrahim. 2002. “Three Views of Science in the Islamic World.” In God, Life, and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives, by Muzaffar Iqbal, Syed Nomanul Haq, editors Ted Peters, 43-76. Aldershot UK: Ashgate.
Katz, Solomon. 24:2 1999. “Toward a New Concept of Global Morality.” Zygon 237-254.
Lilienfeld, Scott and RAchel Ammirati. 38:4 2014. “Would the World be Better Off Without Religion?” The Skeptical Inquirer 31.
Peters, Ted and Martinez Hewlett. 2005. Evolution from Creation to New Creation. Nashville TN: Abingdon.
Peters, Ted. 2018. “Public Theology: Its Pastoral, Apologetic, Scientific, Political, and Prophetic Tasks.” International Journal of Public Theology 12:2 153-177; https://brill.com/abstract/journals/ijpt/12/1/ijpt.12.issue-1.xml.
Peters, Ted, and Martinez Hewlett. 2009. Can You Believe in God and Evolution? Nashville TN: Abingdon.
Smith, Peter. September 17, 2021. “Many faith leaders say no to endorsing vaccine exemptions.” AP News https://apnews.com/article/health-religion-united-states-coronavirus-pandemic-coronavirus-vaccine-9c947acecd6ba26b4c78827b7b87c185.
Wilson, E O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: W W Norton.