With all the fuss lately about the atheistic books of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it is easy to overlook another glut of books that tend to threaten religion. I am referring to the series of books intending to provide a scientific basis for the prevalence of religious belief.
Examples of the genre include Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust. In each case the idea is to show that a propensity for religious belief is the result of evolution by natural selection.
This week’s New York Times Magazine featured this cover story on the subject. It discusses, in considerable detail, the two main schools of thought regarding why a propensity for religious belief would have evolved:
Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?
The article goes on to discuss the rival camps in considerable detail. I detect a slight bias in favor of the byproduct school of thought but the article, by Robin Marants Henig, is generally pretty good and worth reading.
What strikes me about this debate is that the byproduct theory and the adaptionist theory do not seem to be mutually exclusive. Religion is not a single thing, after all. It is some combination of a propensity for belief in supernatural entities, a desire to carry out certain rituals or live according to sometimes difficult strictures, and some desire for cohesive social groups. Why could not some aspects of religion have evolved because of their immediate adaptive value, while other aspects evolved as a byproduct of other adaptations?
Consider the following:
Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.
A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like “chase” and “capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.
So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.
What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”
That all seems very plausible. A hypersensitivity to detecting agents could be adaptive because it allows you to avoid danger. But it could have the byproduct of making it natural for us to believe in supernatural agents as well.
On the other hand, consider this:
There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.
There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.
This seems plausible as well, but I don’t see how it contradicts what came before it.
These sorts of theories are frustratingly difficult to prove, of course. But let us suppose for the moment that some such explanation gains widespread acceptance as being correct. Who should be happier about that fact: Atheists or Theists?
To me the answer seems clear: Atheists. Sure, you can argue that our propensity for religious belief is a gift from a God who wants us to enter into a relationship with Him. But then you have to wonder why people perceive God’s nature and His will in different, mutually contradictory ways. A simpler interpretation is that God belief is so common despite the lack of evidence on its behalf, not because people are perceiving something genuine about the world, but rather because the vagaries of evolution have produced brains that find such belief easy.
The fact is that the world’s religions show certian basic commonalities coupled with massive local variation. That is precisely the sort of thing evolution explains very well.
One person who disagrees is Justin Barrett:
And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” as he wrote in an e-mail message. “I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.”
At first blush, Barrett’s faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?
“Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,” Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”
There is, alas, a serious hole in Barrett’s argument. If God’s intent were for people to enter into a loving relationship both with Him and with other people, He would have done considerably more than hard wire us to find it natural to believe in divinity. He would have made sure that our hard wiring included not just the part about believing in God, but also the part about loving other people.
That does not seem to have happened. Sure, people seem hard-wired to believe in God. But there are an awful lot of people in the world who believe that serving God involves slaughtering infidels and condemning nonbelievers to hell. A belief in God is arguably hard-wired, but a belief in love of your fellow man certainly isn’t.
Indeed, things are even worse than that. Xenophobia seems to be hard wired into our brains as well, and religion seems singularly adept at heightening our fear of outsiders. These are not things that promote Barrett’s message of universal love. If God used evolution to make it natural to believe in Him, why did he not also use evolution to make it natural to accept His message of love?
Moving on, where does all of this leave atheism?
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.
Here I can only say that atheism is different for Atran than it is for me. For me it is no struggle at all to live without God. I have found God’s existence unlikely for as long as I have been old enough to think about these things. That God’s existence seems so unlikely to me, while seeming obvious to so many others, causes me quite a bit of frustration I assure you.
At any rate, fascinating stuff. I recommend the entire article, despite its length.