Thanks to the ScienceBlogs community for such a boisterous welcome. For those who object to my metaphor of science as a religion that worships truth as its god, I offer the metaphor of science as a contact sport. We try our best to throw each other to the mat and then good naturedly go out for a beer. In this spirit, I enjoyed the vigorous critique of my inaugural blog as much as the welcome.
I am most eager to engage the ScienceBlogs community on the subject of group selection, but I can’t resist responding to some of the aforementioned critiques. In my opinion, religion is most usefully studied as part of something larger than itself. The main focus should be on meaning systems and religions are a kind of meaning system.
What is a meaning system? It is a set of beliefs and practices that receives environmental information as input and results in human action as output. We are such a cultural species that everyone requires a meaning system to function on a daily basis. Emile Durkheim, who is beginning to look pretty good from a modern evolutionary perspective, put it this way: “in all its aspects and at every moment of history, [human] social life is only possible thanks to a vast symbolism.”
Recognizing the importance of meaning systems places cultural evolution at the center of what it means to be human. Genetic evolution is required to explain our capacity to create meaning systems, but our meaning systems, not our genes, are responsible for how we behave in the most proximate sense. A proper integration of genetic and cultural evolution in the study of humans is only starting to emerge, as reflected in books such as The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon and Not by Genes Alone, by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.
Once we focus on meaning systems as the main object of study, then we can study the elements associated with religion and science in the context of meaning systems. Studying religion as part of something larger than itself is an asset, not a liability, as suggested by some comments on my inaugural blog. We can begin to appreciate the diversity of religious meaning systems (e.g., liberal vs. conservative), in contrast to the rather narrow conceptions of religion displayed in other comments. We can see the irrational dimension of religion as a manifestation of a tradeoff between factual and practical realism, as I discuss in my Atheism as a Stealth Religion blogs and elsewhere. We can begin to understand why all cultures have a mode of thought that we can recognize as proto-scientific, which is limited to certain contexts. We can immediately see that science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system, because it merely tells us what’s out there (and this is always an approximation) and not what to do. Science must therefore function in the context of a larger meaning system that provides values. Finally, we can work toward constructing new meaning systems that respect the difference between values and facts more than ever before.
But that’s another story. Let’s focus our attention on group selection. If we can reach a consensus on this subject, we will have accomplished something very important indeed.