Did evolution give us God?

I’m all in favor of religious studies, but by that I mean studies that dissect the historical basis of religion and try to explain its prevalence.  Writers like Pascal Boyer and Dan Dennett, and of course all the religious scholars who trace the origins of sacred books, have made important contributions to understanding this greatest of psychological engines.  And I’m also in favor of teaching the nature and background of religion in public school, though I’m really, really dubious that it could ever be done objectively and without rancor. (Imagine, for example, how Catholics or Muslims would squabble about how the teachings of their faith should be “objectively” presented to kids!)

Lately, however, attempts to understand religion seem to elide into justifications for religion, particularly studies that purport to reveal religion’s evolutionary roots.  When you read about these studies, you can sense, bubbling beneath, the naturalistic fallacy that if something evolved it must therefore be good for us—prompting what Dennett calls “belief in belief.”  Indeed, some folks seem to go even further, thinking that that if a belief in God evolved, then maybe there is a God. Regardless, many of those wishing for a rapprochement between science and faith find hope in evolutionary studies of religion.

I saw this again on this week’s version of NPR’s “All things considered” hosted by Alix Spiegel:  “Is believing in God evolutionarily advantageous?” Surprisingly (at least to me), NPR seems to have a weakness for faith.  It hosts the abysmal Krista Tippett and her “Speaking of Faith,” and gives little airplay to the godless.  This week’s show could easily have been Tippett’s.  Here’s a summary:

Why religion might well be an evolved adaptation.  Answer: because it’s everywhere, and everyone has it to some degree.  The show starts with psychologist—and atheist—Jesse Bering’s sudden experience of the numinous on the night when his mother died:

The wind chimes outside his mother’s window started to chime.  Bering remembers waking to the tinkle of these bells, a small but distinct sound in an otherwise silent house. And he remembers thinking that those bells carried a very specific message.

“It seemed to me … that she was somehow telling us that she had made it to the other side. You know, cleared customs in heaven,” Bering says.

The thought surprised him. Bering was a confirmed atheist. He did not believe in any kind of supernatural anything. He prided himself on being a scientist, a psychologist who believed only in the measurable material world. But, he says, he simply couldn’t help himself.

“My mind went there. It leapt there,” Bering says. “And from a psychological perspective, this was really interesting to me. Because I didn’t believe it on the one hand, but on the other hand I experienced it.”

Bering claims that these Goddy experiences are universal, even among athiests:

“I’ve always said that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t really believe in atheists either,” Bering says. “Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives.” . . .

In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother’s death.

Bering’s support for this is what evolutionist J. B. S. Haldane called Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem: “It’s a fact the whole world knows.” Note to Bering: never in my life, even before I gave up faith in my teens, have I ever for one moment experienced the feeling of being watched by a supernatural agent.  And I suspect a lot of my readers won’t have, either.  And of those who have had those experiences, how many would still have if they hadn’t been inculcated with religion since they were children?

But Bering’s big mistake, and that of Spiegel, is to claim that the ubiquity of a behavior suggests that it has evolutionary roots:

In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. That is, something so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn’t slowly died out until we were all left with the trait. But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?

Okay, let’s stop right there.  A behavior that is widespread, or universal, need not have evolved, or been selected for directly.  Let’s take a common one: masturbation.  Surely self-pleasuring is as widespread as faith and spiritual experience, but I seriously doubt that we have a evolved “wanking module” that mandates this specific behavior.  Indeed, masturbation could be seen as maladaptive, since it quenches your sexual impulses in a nonreproductive way.  In fact, masturbation is almost certainly a byproduct of evolution: we’ve evolved neurologically-based sexual pleasure and orgasms that impel us to reproduce, we’ve evolved a big brain that helps us learn, and, voilà, we learn that we can have orgasms without a mate.

There are lots of behaviors that are nearly universal but probably not evolved, at least in the sense of natural selection having favored genes promoting those behaviors.  Brushing our teeth, dancing, writing poetry, telling jokes: all of these are evolutionary in the trivial sense that they’re productions of a highly evolved brain, but probably not behaviors that were selected for directly.  Curiously, there’s not the slightest mention in the NPR piece that the ubiquity of faith could largely reflect the fact that we’re taught to believe. If religion were an evolved, hard-wired phenomenon, it should spontaneously appear if you could somehow bring up a group of children without exposing them to faith or its manifestations in modern life.  We can’t do this, of course, but it tells you what’s required to substantiate the “hard-wired” explanation.

And so might religion also be a byproduct—a byproduct (as Pascal Boyer posits) of behaviors like intentionality and curiosity that themselves were either favored directly by natural selection or were byproducts of consciousness and intelligence. Religion’s ubiquity?  It could reflect either cultural inheritance or the fact that independent societies, with the same cerebral armament, hit on similar behaviors.

How did religion evolve? There’s no behavior too arcane (or even maladaptive) to defy an evolutionary-psychology explanation.  Religion is an easy one! Here’s what Spiegel says:

Through the lens of evolution, a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good . . .

In those early human communities when someone did something wrong, someone else in the small human group would have to punish them. But as Johnson points out, punishing itself is often dangerous because the person being punished probably won’t like it.

“That person has a family; that person has a memory and is going to develop a grudge,” [Dominic] Johnson says. “So there are going to be potentially quite disruptive consequences of people taking the law into their own hands.”

On the other hand, Johnson says, if there are Gods or a God who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn’t a vigilante; he’s simply enforcing God’s law.

“You have a very nice situation,” Johnson says. “There are no reprisals against punishers. And the other nice thing about supernatural agents is that they are often omniscient and omnipresent.”

That wasn’t hard, was it?  Of course, it’s tinged with group selection, and there’s no explanation about why cheaters, who pretend to believe in God but don’t really, wouldn’t subvert the system, but never mind.  There are two big problems with this explanation.  The first is the complete lack of evidence (besides its ubiquity, which proves nothing) that there’s a hard-wired genetic basis to religious belief.  More about that in a minute.

The second is that there are alternative, non-evolutionary reasons for religion. (I mean “non-evolutionary” in the sense that there are no genes specifically promoting belief in the supernatural.  Of course, all human behaviors can be considered evolutionary in the trivial sense that they’re performed by an evolved brain).  Pascal Boyer outlines some of these in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought.  In short, Boyer believes that religion is simply a byproduct of evolved human cognition and sociality: things like guessing the motives of others, adopting an intentional stance, and so on.

Another explanation, which I believe Dawkins discusses in The God Delusion (I don’t have my copy here), is that religion is parasitic on our evolved credulity, particularly as children.  We are evolved to follow authority because authority has generally been good for us, especially when we’re young, and so society culturally supplements that authority with a sky-god. That’s similar to the NPR explanation except there’s no genetics and no evolution of religious belief per se.  And then of course there’s another byproduct of evolution: we are probably the only creatures who know we’re going to die.  We don’t like that, so we infuse many faiths with immortality and heavenly reward.

Now we don’t know which of these explanations, if any (or all!) is true.  The point is that there are purely social and cultural explanations for religious belief, explanations that don’t require genes for God.  All of these piggyback on some of our evolved traits, but in none is there direct selection for belief in gods.  In these theories, religion has the same relationship to evolution as masturbation does to sex.

But isn’t there evidence for “God genes,” you might ask?  Not really.  A while back there was evidence that VMAT2, a gene involved in neurotransmission, was present in two forms, one of which correlated with higher performance on psychological assays of spirituality.  But the effect was very weak, and was never replicated by other scientists (see Carl Zimmer’s critique).  But even if there were such a gene, with a weak effect on promoting spirituality, it says virtually nothing about whether spirituality is hard-wired in our genomes.  For one thing, the gene was segregating: it was found in some individuals and not others.  Why this variation if we’re all hard-wired for faith?

More important, segregating genetic variation says nothing about the evolutionary basis of a trait.  To belabor the masturbation analogy, let’s suppose there was a genetic analysis of the frequency of masturbation in males.  You might indeed find some segregating genes that affect the trait: individuals who have higher titers of testosterone, for instance, might pleasure themselves more frequently.  Or genes that make one physically unattractive, and unable to get mates, might have as their byproduct a more frequent need for wanking. So we have genetic variation for the trait, but this says nothing about masturbation as a behavior favored by evolution. You could find this variation whether the behavior was a direct product of selection or only a byproduct of other traits that evolved.

So we have no evidence for a genetic basis of believing in God, and plenty of alternative explanations that don’t involve natural selection.  How did NPR deal with these serious objections?

The caveats.  In a piece of 2288 words, NPR devotes 96 of them—just 4% of the total—to “differing views”. Here’s their “critique” in its entirety:

Of course there are plenty of criticisms of these ideas. For example one premise of this argument is that religious belief is beneficial because it helped us to cooperate. But a small group of academics argue that religious beliefs have ultimately been more harmful than helpful, because those religious beliefs inspire people to go to war.

And then there are the people who say that cooperation doesn’t come from God — that cooperation evolved from our need to take care of family or show potential mates that we were a good choice. The theories are endless.

That’s really lame. Not a word about genetics or other non-evolutionary explanations for religion.  No other experts were recruited to criticize NPR’s evolutionary story—and believe me, there are plenty of them.  So when Spiegel’s piece ends with this:

Unfortunately it’s not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. So these speculations will remain just that: speculations.

you can forgive the listener for ignoring a few words of reservation after an enthusiastic boost for the God-was-selected theory.

As a whole, the NPR piece is irresponsible science reporting, leading the public to think that scientists are really on to a new Darwinian explanation for faith.  We aren’t:  we have tons of theories and few ways to distinguish among them. (I, for one, would love to see a generation of children brought up completely insulated from religion. That’s impractical, of course, but if it were done I doubt that religion would suddenly reappear.)

The origins of faith, lost in either our evolutionary or cultural past, may simply be one of those questions we’ll never resolve. It’s still worth trying, but in the interim let’s not pretend that we’re even close to understanding the connection between evolution and God.  True, that connection—though despised by many of the faithful—is welcomed by faitheists and other accommodationists.  It seems to bring about a harmony between science and faith.  But the whole purpose of science is to keep us from mistaking what we’d like to be true for what really is true.

74 Comments

  1. DavidB
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Regarding masturbation, humans have the rare advantage that they can use their hands. I feel sorry for horses: the best they can do is swing their wanger up against their belly, but it doesn’t seem very effective. Maybe the human case could be cited as Intelligent Design?

    • steve oberski
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      I’m waiting for the Ray “Banana Man” Comfort video showing how the fact that the human hand is perfectly designed to stimulate ones own genitals is proof of the existence of god.

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Even better proof: dogs can blow themselves. God must have loved dogs much more – but who doesn’t love dogs (except for some of those psychotic cat lovers).

        • Joshua
          Posted September 7, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          Hey, my cat can lick herself too.

  2. Posted September 5, 2010 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Indeed, I even [see] some folks going further, thinking that that if a belief in God evolved, then maybe there is a God.

    Aside from the roughness of this sentence, my incredulous response is, “Some?!?! You’re scaring me, and I think Phil affected even you to some extent, so that you’re understating to be scrupulously fair – this is one of the leading arguments for goddity, despite the fact that it’s logically corrupt. But then again, so are nearly all of the other arguments for deities, so… ;-)

    I’ve pondered the following idea for a while, and I’m wondering if anyone else has come across someone who has examined it in detail. We humans (if I may rashly include myself in this realm for the sake of argument) seem to have a strong propensity for finding answers, for figuring things out. Not just in our quests for scientific understanding, but even for simple things like puzzles and mysteries. If you think about it, this drive seems fairly strong.

    I can certainly, from a pop evo standpoint, see this as a key factor in survival. Is it likely that something like this, in the absence of answers to tough questions, can lead to deriving an answer to satisfy the drive? Any time in our history up until the last couple hundred years, when humans looked at the stunning natural phenomena of earthquakes, lightning, floods and so on, were they “encouraged” by some answer-seeking part of their brains to produce a solution, <i<any solution, to explain these?

    I realize this is folk genetics, and could be bollocks, but does anyone know if such a thing was examined by someone who knows what they’re doing better than I?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      Thanks; I fixed the sentence before you posted (I tend to post first drafts and clean them up after seeing them posted.)

      I think Boyer deals with your idea, though it’s been a while since I’ve read his book. He’d probably say that your explanation leaves out a lot of the common features of religion, including the sense that someone’s watching you from above.

  3. Jeff D
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I listened to Alix Spiegel’s NPR piece when it aired and did not read the pseudo-transcript. As I was listening, I noted many of the flaws Jerry cited (no mention of the byproduct-of-adaptations-evolved-for-other-reasons concept; no mention of the Intentional Stance or the work of Justin Barrett & Pascal Boyer). Still, this radio story would have been far worse if it had been assigned to and handled by NPR’s regular religion-and-spirituality reporter, Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

  4. MadScientist
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    The “superstition is an inevitable product of evolution” always has me screaming at people. I have never seen any sensible argument for it. As I see it, while we are ignorant anything can seem to make sense. Religion is a defective hypothesis which many people refuse to reject due to numerous other factors (such as peer pressure). The numerous lies told as truth to children also stick and adults coerce children into believing. Without that coercion I believe it would be difficult to get people to believe any religion. In short, establishment of superstition is not a necessary outcome due to our evolved faculties. Superstitions come about just as any other mistaken idea comes about. The difference is that people are extremely aggressive in protecting superstition while they generally don’t care whether or not other mistaken ideas are discarded. For example, the faitheists and their commitment to not confronting people about their superstitions.

    • James Sweet
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Have you read Supersense by Bruce Hood by any chance? He makes an interesting argument that at least some of our superstitious tendencies (primarily essentialism) are crucial to social cohesion. I think he overstates the case, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless…

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        It would probably be like all the other ones I’ve seen – no evidence whatsoever to support the claims, only a few selected facts. I really can’t imagine how essentialism (yet another bad idea which many humans discard) is crucial to social cohesion. And once again, there is this confusion between what is evolved and what is not which always enrages me. The behavioral evolutionists need to be able to distinguish between evolved traits (an obvious one being 5 fingers) and correlation. So far they have only convinced me that they know nothing of evolution or scientific experimentation. “Did morals evolve” sounds like a reasonable question which may be resolvable by science, but every article I’ve read to date is just filled with wishful thinking. “Did religion evolve” is even worse – the articles seem to be nothing but apologies for religion. It’s like the “does god exist” question – people who write about it want to twist any available facts to fit their predetermined outcome.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      It strikes me as very unlikely that religion itself is an evolved capacity. It’s simply too complex and structured a human activity to make this plausible. Certainly, religions as institutional realities can have little to do with evolution, and are kept going, as you suggest, by teaching/coercion.

      However, if we think of language and all its complexities as a second replicator, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that religion is a naturally evolving part of language, which is essentially what Boyer says.

      Religions adapt language, which probably evolved as a way for humans (or other language using species) to deal with their environment and its dangers. Since intentional beings were perhaps the most significant (as well as perhaps the most dangerous) part of the early landscape, intentional language was presumably quite naturally extended to non-intentional aspects of the world.

      Think of people who are very sick. One of the first things that they tend to say even now is, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” And this is, essentially, to personify the natural world, and to ascribe purpose (intention) to it, as though it took into account things like wrongdoing, what one deserves, etc.

      So, in this sense, religion may be a product of the way that language evolved, and the apparent appropriateness of ascribing agency to non-intentional things.

      This would probably have been quite harmless, and even quaint, if such ascriptions did not become associated so readily with power. Of course, this was no doubt inevitable, and inevitable too that it would eventually come to be concentrated in one indivisible centre of power, like the monotheistic god. This way the god’s power could be exercised by one person or class of persons, and used to subdue the others for the advantage of this person or class.

      Religion itself, is, then, I think, purely an effect of (religious) language. (Its function as religious language is probably secondary.) It is no accident, I suspect, that almost all religions, except amongst unlettered tribes, are in fact literary traditions, and are controlled by literate elites. Which is why, until the Reformation, it was a punishable offence to translate the Bible into the common language of a people. Wycliffe was not himself punished while alive, but, by a decision of the Council of Constance, his body was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I wish there was a way to be notified of comments on interesting posts without leaving a comment.

  6. James Sweet
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    My wife’s cousin has been on about purported benefits of religious belief lately, and he cited the NPR program. Oy.

    I’m weary of discussing with him, so I gave the short version: Yes, I suppose that is possible. So???

  7. Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    While developing a belief will not cause a god (unless PTerry is right!) it is easy to see how a religeon evolves.

    A belief system with deities and zombie avatars doesn’t spring out ready formed- it starts with the rise of shamistic – “where does the ‘person’ bit go when hit by a ‘thargomizer’?”, “Why can’t it be crop growing time all the time?”, “what are those lights in the sky, and where does the sun go?”

    Some proto Paley looks at his tools and thinks “If an Axe implies a flint knapper, where does the flint come from?”

    Add in some interesting berries “Eat these and talk to your ancestors” and allow to be used by those who have their own agenda, or know the best way to manipulate the tribe – consider how many of the 613 laws are actually quite good advice for small desert nomad tribes, surrounded by enemies.

    From what I understand pig flesh developes fatal infections in desert conditions – not much of a step to think “hmm sheep doesn’t make me sick, but pig does IT MUST BE GODS WILL!”, then add in the person who sort of gets it, but uses God as a way to give good advice “Don’t eat the shellfish, or er, um, God will make you sick”

    • Mike Barnes
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      There’s a simpler explanation. Religion began when the first liar met the first fool.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      The biggest problem with piggies is that worm whose name I forget. You eat a bit that’s not cooked well enough and it happens to have the worm cyst. The cyst activates and the worm might just find itself at the base of your skull, fiddling with your nerves and making you flop about (though not in the same way as sufferers of epilepsy do). I haven’t heard yet of anyone getting the worm from prosciutto, but if it were an issue I’d just recommend sterilizing the product with a gamma ray battery.

      Rotting pork is not really any more a problem than rotting cow or chicken.

      • Microraptor
        Posted September 6, 2010 at 1:08 am | Permalink

        Trichinosis is probably what you’re thinking of.

      • BaldApe
        Posted September 6, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        My understanding is that the prohibition on pork may stem from economic/energy/water considerations. Pigs eat the same things we do, so you are losing the food energy of one trophic level. They require shade and water, which can be a problem in that part of the world.
        If it were the disease issue, chickens would be a problem because of Salmonella. Cooking the meat solves the problem in both cases anyway.
        This is just what I recall hearing. It could easily be way off.

        • Chayanov
          Posted September 6, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          That’s the argument anthropologist Marvin Harris makes in his book, “Good to Eat”.

  8. Trevor Holcolmbe
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Hmm. Not so fast, Jerry. To begin with, knowing Bering and Johnson’s work, which is pretty highly respected in those circles, I think you’re reading more into an NPR story than they would ever advocate in their research. These are anything but naive scholars so some sound bytes with a reporter’s story about evolution written around them? Johnson is an evolutionary biologist and had a great book a few years ago called “Overconfidence and War” and Bering is whip-smart and writes for Scientific American. And I swear he actually wrote about evolution and masturbation and it made a helluva lot of sense to me http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=one-reason-why-humans-are-special-a-2010-06-22

  9. poke
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    The obvious flaw is equating religion with belief in God. There’s a lot of people who believe in God but we know exactly how those people came to believe in God: conquest, colonisation and conversion. Before Islam and Christianity there was greater religious diversity and most of it wasn’t theistic. So belief in God isn’t in any way universal.

  10. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking recently that belief in the supernatural may be built upon lower level evolutionarily derived (probably) instincts.

    We tend to use abductive reasoning (working back from an event to a cause) but which will stop at the first satisfactory answer, true or not.

    Similarly an ability to detect agency and danger will increase fitness even if there are false positives (if not overdone).

    At some point our ancestors started living in troops, probably with a leader. Any individual that *instinctively* knows that cheating is bad if you are caught, behaviour that pleases the boss is beneficial, fearing the boss is sensible, and an apparently absent boss may still find out that you have done something that will anger him… is likely to be more ‘fit’ on average than others in the troop.

    As the troop gets larger additional instincts increase fitness – like the ability to judge if another unfamiliar individual will bite or groom you. Basic instincts which support a theory of mind become important. Maintaining social status (as a proxy for fitness) becomes important.

    Take all these instincts together and it is not so surprising that religion can hijack them with a very seductive and authoritative ‘God(s) did it’ explanation.

    Which may be why the Christian religion (and others) likes to assert that morality is religious, marriage is religious, infants should be brought into the faith, and death ceremonies are religious. Without asserting control over normal life events, religion’s got nothing.

    • Microraptor
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      You forgot our pattern recognition ability, which keeps going even when there isn’t an actual pattern to be recognized.

      Religious rituals (whether rain dances, sacrifices, chanting, ect) depend heavily on false positive pattern recognition.

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it’s all like the Cargo Cult. Repeating some actions will make the gods do something for you.

  11. Neil
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Re ubiquity. It is interesting that the “god” behind these supposed evolutionary explanations is invariably of the tribal Abrahamic (punishing and rewarding) type. *The Abrahamic god, which is the object of faith for the bulk of humanity, is all the same meme.* One could ask why it is such a successful meme, I suppose, but the god gene explanation requires one to do a study of all of the world’s belief systems, including various pre-Abrahamic faiths, to see if they all mimic the supposed group selection benefits claimed by the proponents of the hypothesis.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      The Abrahamic god, which is the object of faith for the bulk of humanity, is all the same meme

      About 50% of religious believers are Christian or Muslim, so I think saying “bulk of humanity” is overstating the case.

      • Microraptor
        Posted September 5, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Especially given the historic tendency of both of them to attempt to eradicated any competing religions whenever they spread to a new area.

      • Neil
        Posted September 6, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        Well, according to Wikipedia, that infalliable source, there are 2.3-2.5 billion christians, 1.1-1.2 billion muslims, 14-18 million jews, 7.6-7.9 million Bahai, and a few Restafarians, which constitutes *at least* 3.4+ billion or 50% of the world population. And given that there are some atheists out there, more than 50% of the world’s religious population. No other group comes close–there is an upper end estimate of Buddhists at 1.5 billion. So I think “bulk” is an accurate term.

        But other than nit-picking, do you have a substantive point?

  12. MJP
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    From now on, I’m going to refer to the most common religious debate tactic (“We have more answers than you!”) as “answerbation.”

  13. BaldApe
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    The most interesting aspect of this to me is that, assuming the benefits of religion are real, they don’t seem to matter which religion you believe.

    For instance, supposedly people who go to church several times per week are healthier than those who go rarely. But it doesn’t seem to matter to which church they go. If the benefit were due to the fact that they were worshiping the right God, wouldn’t you expect it only to work for some churches?

    IOW, salutary effects of religion seem to be arguments against, not for, the actual existence of God.

  14. Kenny Andrews
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I’m a psychology student, and when I first discovered evolutionary psych I found it exhilarating. Finally, an actual theory to make sense of all these disparate findings and proximate explanations. But since taking some biology, and since most of my independent reading is on biology/by biologists, my enthusiasm has been tempered severely. I still find the logic that humans do have some shared, universal, evolved psychology very convincing, but the details of what that entails are exceedingly difficult to nail down. For example, three years ago I might’ve loved and been convinced by that NPR piece; today my reaction is pretty much the same as Jerry’s.

    When Steven Pinker left MIT, there was a big going-away ceremony that’s up on google video. Much of the conversation was on language, and he expanded on the differences between his views and Noam Chomsky’s. He basically re-iterated his argument from The Language Instinct– that language is a direct product of natural selection. He then laid out Chomsky’s position, which is that while language evolved(in the trivial sense Jerry talks about), you can’t demonstrate it evolved for the purpose of communication, any more than our hand gestures or the clothing we wear. This drew a laugh or two from the crowd because it seems so counter-intuitive, but Chomsky isn’t some crank. If I remember correctly, Pinker described this as an empirical issue, but what are the empirical questions? How could you demonstrate that a psychological phenomenon is a product of natural selection? Can you? This seems like a particularly strong case because, as I understand it, we have associated specific genes with language production disorders. There’s that family in England with heritable grammar problems. Is Chomsky just wrong?

    If we could do the experiment of raising children in an environment isolated from any of our influence, I see why one might doubt the spontaneous formation of a religion. But why not also doubt our sense of intentionality arising? Doesn’t that imply that our tendency to attribute intentionality is an evolved trait? How do we know that beyond its ubiquity? Is that a byproduct of something else? Why not talk about genes for intentionality?

    I don’t even mean these as challenges, I’m honestly trying to learn more about this.

  15. Tulse
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    one premise of this argument is that religious belief is beneficial because it helped us to cooperate. But a small group of academics argue that religious beliefs have ultimately been more harmful than helpful, because those religious beliefs inspire people to go to war.

    So? The argument is essentially about group selection, and it may be beneficial both for group members to cooperate and for the group to try to wipe out other groups.

    This kind of sloppy thinking (or, rather, sloppy presentation of others’ thinking) is so annoying.

  16. littlejohn
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Religious feelings are certainly not universal. I’m 56 years old, was forced to attend church for my first 15 or so and never felt a religious feeling in my life, not even for second.
    Even as a toddler I thought the preacher was talking nonsense.
    Just as one white crow proves that not all crows are black, my existence proves that religious experiences are not universal.

  17. Chris
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Jerry, for what it’s worth, in my high school World History class, we did learn about other religious – specifically Islam – objectively and without any rancor (from either the teacher or idiot parents). We learned about Mohammed and the hejira, the Five Pillars of Islam, etc. No muss, no fuss. Of course, this was 1989-90. Sadly, I suspect that if a teacher would try to teach something as innocuous as this today, some parent would complain, Fox news would pitch a fit, the Tea Partiers would show up with their guns, Palin would start Tweeting made-up words, and the Democrats wouldn’t have the balls to tell the rest of them that they should all go practice a maladaptive evolutionary byproduct on themselves.

  18. Chayanov
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives.”

    Paranoia, therefore God.

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      That statement really stood out for me too. My thought was, show me the data. They can’t, because it ain’t so. This type of juvenile argumentation immediately pegs you as not having anything worth while to listen to.

      • Chayanov
        Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        It’s such a bizarre claim. Leaving aside the notion that “everybody” feels this way, he’s arguing that since so many people experience it, then it must be meaningful. Yet he also labels the feeling as an illusion. What is he arguing? God exists because some people have the illusion that God exists?

        • BaldApe
          Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s worse than that. He’s arguing that people believe that God exists because people believe that God exists.

          • Chayanov
            Posted September 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            Upon a second reading, that was my conclusion as well.

  19. RPJ
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Note to Bering: never in my life, even before I gave up faith in my teens, have I ever for one moment experienced the feeling of being watched by a supernatural agent. And I suspect a lot of my readers won’t have, either. And of those who have had those experiences, how many would still have if they hadn’t been inculcated with religion since they were children?

    Interestingly, I’m with Bering here; I’ve had brief flashes of “agency” at strange times myself. (I still occasionally assign agency to inanimate objects that misbehave, like my computer, to give me something to take aggression out on). Of course I realize immediately that such a thing is preposterous…but that doesn’t change the fact that moment of irrational emotionalism did happen. I’m not a scientist though, so I won’t delude myself that I can come up with a really plausible hypothesis to the origin of this; it’s enough for me to assign it to the vagaries of emotion.

    Also, I’ve never been “inculcated with religion”. The only relatives that I have any semblance of contact with that are religious are my presbytarian grandparents, who never attempted to proselytize to me.

    We learned about Mohammed and the hejira, the Five Pillars of Islam, etc. No muss, no fuss. Of course, this was 1989-90.

    Most of my history occurred around 1998-2003, and we learned it fairly objectively as well. Though I was in a fairly liberal part of the country.

    I’ve heard it said before, and I’m inclined to agree, that people prefer the known to the unknown. Of course we aren’t omniscient, so we can’t distinguish the known from the “known”…add in a dose of authority (why worry about things when problems can be pawned off on somebody above you) and it seems reasonable to me that an early society without capability of finding real answers would invent a god. Leaders are as human as followers, and followers won’t be appeased by an incompetent authority; so he just sends to buck up to a god.

    After a religion is conceived all sorts of other societal forces take hold of it, of course.

    But take my hypothesis with a grain of salt. I’m not a scientist, so I’m just talking out my ass with what sounds reasonable to me.

  20. Darrell E
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, Johnson says, if there are Gods or a God who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn’t a vigilante; he’s simply enforcing God’s law.

    This argument, attributed to Johnson, is really inept. Did someone up above say Johnson’s work was highly respected? I won’t completely dismiss the guy based on this one second hand argument, but this argument is so bad I will probably be forever biased.

    Please demonstrate that strains are reduced. Or is this claim the result of a thought experiment? Just as one example, explain how religion reduced internal violence within the Mafia subculture.

    What if people have different idea’s about what god’s will is? In real life just about every individual believer does.

    What if the people believe in different gods? What if their god’s tell them to kill all of the other people? Except for virgin females of course.

    This is a very poor argument. It really seems to me that Johnson must be biased in favor of religion to be able to blind himself to how poor of an argument this is.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      The god of Abraham told his people to murder all males of the neighboring tribes and to keep the young women as sex slaves (presumably they killed off all the older women as well).

      A skeptic is doomed to endlessly repeat the obvious such as:
      1. There are no UFOs created by aliens here on earth
      2. There are no such thing as psychics – they are either outright frauds or self-deluded individuals
      3. Those voices in your head is not god speaking to you; you’ve got something wrong with your head.

      Unfortunately religion encourages people who “hear voices”. Historically religion has also promoted the murder of such people for being consorts of the devil.

  21. Vishal
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Excellent critique!

    And even if we accept (for argument’s sake) that religion is a product of evolution – that doesn’t, in itself, mean that it’s *good* for us. For example, xenophobia and male promiscuity are both products of evolution, but surely non-desirable traits.

    • Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Depends on the context really, but that context isn’t here and now!

  22. Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Lately, however, attempts to understand religion seem to elide into justifications for religion, particularly studies that purport to reveal religion’s evolutionary roots.

    Some of that is directly thanks to the Templeton Foundation – Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct is a glaring example of that. That elision gets funded, lavishly, so it’s going to keep on eliding.

  23. Hitch
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Popper called this Historicism and roundly debunked it.

    It’s a truism that the concept of god has evolved societally. After all we have it in society today.

    But that says nothing to it’s merit beyond being a survivor. And it says nothing about merit beyond not having eradicated the species yet!

    But yes, in the evolutionary religion field there is quite a bit of justify why religion is good and should not be critiqued or sought to be removed going on.

    D.S. Sloan etc. coincidentally if you want to find an unfair critique of new atheists you don’t have to look long in that kind of crowd. Sloan would misuqote Hitchens as wanting genocide on Muslims no problem. I think it’s very important to point to the flaws of this field.

    There are good ways to study religions as a social construct and it’s merits, impact and so forth. One could even do evolutionary aspects, but they have to be grounded in the related body of work. That’s why Pascal Boyer and other psychologically grounded anthropoligists of science are key. If a book on evolutionary religious studies doesn’t ground itself in proper experimental knowledge about how belief works (psychologically, neurologically), it’s not science but pseudo-science.

    And if it makes historic predictions about goodness then it is plainly historicism, with all the standard flaws that Popper already noted.

  24. palefury
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    OK here is a bit of a confession. I too have had a similar experience to Bering – when I was 14 my father passed away from cancer, within the four days before his funeral I thought I saw him twice in reflections in different windows. Is this proof of life after death, no, simply the reaction of my bereaved mind to a tragic event, and I have never thought otherwise. Grief can be a lot of stress on the brain, and sometimes it will do aberrant things that maybe an irrational part of yourself needs to hear at the time. So I guess this is somewhat of a coping mechanism, however irrational, and all people experience it differently.

    I am not sure if this is what Bering is referring to as the evolution of religion. Delusional thinking in times of stress, that help the mind cope until it can come to terms with an overwhelming event. I do think that this aspect of human psychology could have evolved. We are social animals and emotions such as love are certainly required in order for us to raise our offspring who are entirely dependent on their parents for several years, and to build families and societies which would certainly be beneficial in terms of survival and procreation. Along with love, comes mourning when a person you love dies, and certainly it is tempting to believe that we will see our lost loved ones again, which is a possibility many, if not all, religions offer. Is this what Bering is referring to I wonder?

    Even us atheists and logical thinkers are prone to the odd irrational thought though. Like the experience of deja vu for example. Which I see less likely as something selected for by evolution but more a bug in the brain’s wiring, which may just have come along for the ride as we evolved our larger brains capable of existential thinking.

    But this is where the difference comes in I guess, unlike some, I do not apply this delusional thinking to my every day life.

  25. Posted September 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it a little disingenuous to focus on the (non/)existence of a “religion gene” in critiquing the idea of an evolutionary basis for religious belief?

    As far as I know, there’s no “walk upright” gene, or “digest meat” gene either. These are behaviors that rely on many genes replicating together into collections that happen to be mutually beneficial to the vehicles those genes produce.

    Similarly, it’s conceivable (though perhaps not demonstrable) that religiosity is not controlled by a single gene, but by a complex network of genes affecting temperament, credulity, etc.

    Consciousness, for example, cannot be tied down to a single gene, but neither do I think Coyne would suggest that human evolution wasn’t involved in coming up with it, and surely no one thinks that consciousness is a purely social/cultural phenomenon.

    Religiosity may very well be a byproduct of the evolution of our psychology, or not related to evolution at all. As an avowed atheist, I’m not so insecure as not to welcome the question. If religiosity really does have a basis in evolution, it doesn’t make particular religious beliefs any more true, or beneficial to today’s society.

    Understanding what evolutionary benefits religious belief offers, if any, could help us secularists understand how to provide such benefits without needing to pander to fantasy.

    This is one criticism I have of many of the outspoken “New Atheists”: not that they’re wrong about the facts, but that they often assume that simply presenting the facts to the religious-minded will convert them (sort of like the opposite of a Chick Tract). Just because Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins may never have felt the pull of certain religious sentiments doesn’t diminish the fact that others do report those feelings. Laying out the scientific facts is not going to explain their feelings, and is just likely to be met with frustrating rejection. Only understanding the basis for those feelings will help you communicate to such persons. Maybe there is a basis in evolution, if only as a byproduct of other psychological developments, but if it’s true, wouldn’t it be nice to know that?

    I find the suggestion that religion persists because we’re taught it to be non-persuasive. Does math exist solely because we’re all taught it? I doubt it. If knowledge of math were to somehow disappear from the world for a generation, I suspect the following generations would rediscover it (assuming we’re not exist), because our brains have evolved to be able to think mathematically. Clearly, there is an evolutionary advantage to people knowing at least basic math, but I doubt there is a “math gene”. Similarly, I would not be surprised to learn that parts of our evolved mentality make religious belief tempting, even fruitful to many (most?) people. Specific religions then satisfy those urges, but nothing there says that only supernatural belief systems need apply.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Do you know the meaning of “disingenuous”? This comment is obnoxious. And who said there had to be ONE religion gene? I said that there was one gene suggested to influence spirituality. If religion were selected for directly, it would almost certainly be polygenic.

      And if religion was installed by selection, there would have to be genes that were fixed to create that trait, just like there were genes that promoted upright posture and (presumably) genes to help with our changed diet. (Lactase is one of these.)

      It’s not wise to be so snarky when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • Posted September 5, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      This is one criticism I have of many of the outspoken “New Atheists”: not that they’re wrong about the facts, but that they often assume that simply presenting the facts to the religious-minded will convert them…

      No we don’t. We’re not that simple-minded. But you seem to assume that it’s somehow knowable who will read or hear any particular article or post or lecture. There’s never any filter on readers/hearers that insures only a certain kind will consume the article/lecture. Nobody ever knows exactly who will read or hear anything, so it’s pointless to say “Well I won’t write X because X will be unconvincing to a certain kind of believer” unless your intention is to convince exactly that kind of believer and no one else.

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 6, 2010 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      “Just because Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins may never have felt the pull of certain religious sentiments doesn’t diminish the fact that others do report those feelings.”

      It is hard for me to understand how you can so misinterpret something that is so clearly stated. You must have some underlying bias. Jerry’s statement was a counter argument to this type of argument.

      “Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives.”

      That general type of claim is endemic in religious, faitheist and accommodationist circles. Jerry and Dawkins, and many others, point out that this claim is false when they encounter it because, what do you know, it is false.

      ”Laying out the scientific facts is not going to explain their feelings, and is just likely to be met with frustrating rejection.”

      Can you show me someone who thinks that stating the facts will always, or even just most of the time, convince someone to drop their faith on the spot? Can you demonstrate that explaining the facts about religious experiences does not ever, or only very infrequently, work? Are you suggesting that it is not okay to discuss reality when there is a chance that a religious person might overhear?

      ”Only understanding the basis for those feelings will help you communicate to such persons.”

      Though undoubtedly helpful, and who do you think would deny that it is (?), this statement is false. There is clear evidence that tactics that do not rely on “understanding the basis for those feelings” can be successful in changing a persons mind about their religious beliefs.

      ”Maybe there is a basis in evolution, if only as a byproduct of other psychological developments, but if it’s true, wouldn’t it be nice to know that?”

      Jerry Coyne made the same point in the OP. Do you really think that people like Coyne and Dawkins, or any atheist of average intelligence, think that figuring out the sources, causes and mechanisms of religious belief would not be a good thing? I think that most of these people would say that it is highly desirable, or even necessary, to do so. Some of them have even explicitly said so. Why do you think it is wrong, or contrary to the goal of reaching an understanding of the mechanisms of religious belief, for Jerry Coyne to critique what he thinks are bad explanations for those mechanisms? He does, after all, have expertise and experience in the field of evolutionary biology. And it is well established that the best way to develop accurate information is to test it against all comers.

  26. Tim Harris
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that those of us brought up in Abrahamic religions tend to isolate ‘faith’ too much and make it cognate with religion as a whole, or as defining religion. But as Boyer points out, spirits are not a matter of faith for many peoples but a matter of knowledge (false knowledge, of course). Another matter is that, as anthropological studies of shamanism have shown, and as Lewis-Williams has suggested in his studies of the art and religion of the San people, the origins of religion are intimately bound up with social differentiation and the gaining of power vis-a-vis others. (One need only think of all those self-perpetuating priestly elites that have existed throughout history and that persist now.) So I wonder how helpful it is to think of some single thing called ‘faith’ for which there may or may not be some evolutionary cause (not, I suspect – the work of Sloan-Wilson has certainly ot convinced me).

    • Tim Harris
      Posted September 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about the bad grammar and typos – but there’s no way of seeing all of what one has written until it’s posted; but you can get what is meant.

  27. Sputnik
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Note to Bering: never in my life, even before I gave up faith in my teens, have I ever for one moment experienced the feeling of being watched by a supernatural agent. And I suspect a lot of my readers won’t have, either. And of those who have had those experiences, how many would still have if they hadn’t been inculcated with religion since they were children?

    At least one here. I was not raised religious at all, but I’ve definitely experienced what Bering describes.

  28. Marella
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I have never believed in god/s nor had any experience which I interpreted as the presence of god/s.

    From hanging round here, Pharyngula and elsewhere it is obvious to me there are many others in my situation. Religion is only universal because people like me generally have found it safer to keep their mouths shut. All those bonfires etc!

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Many people keep their mouths shut because they are threatened with brutal treatment and murder. Just see what google has to say about apostates of Islam for example. In other places around the world where a religion is dominant, you cannot get a decent job unless you belong to the right religion – think about it: an openly godless US president? Then again I’m surprised that we’ve got a dark skinned president, but I’m glad that most people accept him – I would have bet the other way around.

  29. steve oberski
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    December 2, 2008

    Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased
    After a loved one dies, most people see ghosts

    By Vaughan Bell

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ghost-stories-visits-from-the-deceased

    • palefury
      Posted September 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Steve, I had no idea it was that common.

  30. Bryan
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    According to this account of the recent Explaining Religion conference at Bristol University, “the evolutionary by-product-hypotheses about religiosity and religions were on the retreat (even among cognitive psychologists).” Presumably the religion as adaptation hypotheses are ascending?

    Not having attended, I have no idea if that is accurate. But regardless, I am glad that the biology of religion is a growing field these days. It is quite interesting.

    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2010-09-05/conference-report-explaining-religion-at-bristol-university-2010

  31. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Indeed, some folks seem to go even further, thinking that that if a belief in God evolved, then maybe there is a God… But Bering’s big mistake, and that of Spiegel, is to claim that the ubiquity of a behavior suggests that it has evolutionary roots…

    While a tendency towards religious belief, i.e. religiosity is nearly ubiquitous, the content of religious belief varies greatly from culture to culture, thus negating that argument for the use that is attempted.

    And while religiosity is nearly ubiquitous across human cultures, it is not ubiquitous in individuals. Nonbelievers spring up in almost every culture, regardless of the content of the prevailing religious beliefs. Why is it that no one seems concerned to whip up an evolutionary explanation for atheism?

  32. Jerrold Alpern
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps religion is an unavoidable consequence of the evolution of self-awareness in an organism. Self-awareness of life brings self-awareness of inevitable death. The consequent incomprehension and fear lead to the need to believe in something beyond death. That something would be a God, or gods, that are immortal themselves and can promise immortality for the mortal organism. The need and fear are so great that they override the lack of evidence for these beliefs. It should not then be surprising that defenders of religion should reject, or distort, any demands for evidence. Dealing with evidence would let the fear of death return, with no escape into non-evidential belief.

    If an octopus were to evolve self-awareness, it would develop religion.

    I am not certain how one could test this hypothesis.

  33. Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    One thing I do find remarkable is the very clear & persistent bias on the part of Coyne (and Dawkins, as well) against the possibility that religion may have evolved directly, rather than as a side effect.

    Also, I find the name Scott Atran to be rather conspicuously absent above . . .

    “and there’s no explanation about why cheaters, who pretend to believe in God but don’t really, wouldn’t subvert the system, but never mind.”

    One possibility is that the system isn’t based on actual belief, but rather giving the outward appearance of belief.

    “the complete lack of evidence (besides its ubiquity, which proves nothing) that there’s a hard-wired genetic basis to religious belief.”

    But Boyer’s explanations are similarly hampered, no? And the idea that religion evolved more specifically deserves to be considered along with these other side-effect options, no?

  34. Dan L.
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Especially after watching the Charlie Rose on developmental neurology, I think Boyer’s thesis is pretty right-on. Almost all of an infant’s cognition seems geared towards watching other human beings and figuring out how they “work” — we’re social animals and a very large part of our brains is devoted to navigating “social space.”

    Bearing that in mind, consider the forms of causality one would be exposed to in a pre-industrial society. Far and away, most causal chains would seem to start with human beings or animals. The exceptions — weather and natural disasters, waves and tides, and perhaps just a few other phenomena — are anthropomorphized very generally across religions, especially in animistic and polytheistic mythologies.

    I have a suspicion that children are developmentally primed to look for intentional explanations as part of our genetic heritage, and that this has to be unlearned somewhat as part of understanding modern science and technology. But for a prehistoric or early historic society without this cultural legacy of empirical data to draw on, it seems to me that the inference of intentionality would be inevitable.

    Why is it still around? I’d guess because most people feel more comfortable navigating social space than trying to understand the material universe, and the notion that there’s someone controlling the weather that they can beg, plead, or cajole is simply more appealing from that perspective.

  35. Dan L.
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    @Oran Kelley:

    …the idea that religion evolved more specifically deserves to be considered along with these other side-effect options, no?

    What do you mean by “religion”? Natural selection can only act on expressed traits. Presumably, if you think “religion” is somehow directly selected for, “religion” for you must consist of particular traits manifested in a human organism’s physiology or behavior.

    The side effect hypotheses are prima facie more likely because we know there are evolved human behaviors that are likely to have an influence on religious belief (Boyer’s hypothesis is an example — we know humans automatically try to ascribe motives to understand causal events). But it’s not clear that there’s some trait or bundle of traits that should be identified with “religion.”

    I think doing so is absurdly reductionist and I imagine it would be taken by most believers as an affront to their faiths. Still, I’m curious as to how you think “religion” could ever be directly selected for.

  36. Karaktur
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the feeling of being watched is learned from having been watched from the moment we could crawl until the day we left on our own. I know my mom had eyes in the back of her head and I learned to look over my shoulder when attempting something I had learned was forbidden. Mom is also a good candidate for the source of morality.

  37. Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    …never in my life, even before I gave up faith in my teens, have I ever for one moment experienced the feeling of being watched by a supernatural agent. And I suspect a lot of my readers won’t have, either. And of those who have had those experiences, how many would still have if they hadn’t been inculcated with religion since they were children?

    Don’t forget about The God Helmet, and the experiments on the effect of magnetic fields on the temporal lobes. There are material causes for spiritual experiences that aren’t genetic.

  38. Posted September 7, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    The side effect hypotheses are prima facie more likely because we know there are evolved human behaviors that are likely to have an influence on religious belief (Boyer’s hypothesis is an example — we know humans automatically try to ascribe motives to understand causal events). But it’s not clear that there’s some trait or bundle of traits that should be identified with “religion.”

    Ummm, since the “side-effect” argument has, as one of its principle components, the very idea of “religion” that you’d like to cast doubt upon, the critique applies equally there.

    And yes, I realize that “religion” is not something we’re going to find a gene directly linked to, as we find with, say, familial hypercholesterolemia . . . . what we’d find would be a trait that would be defined more generically than “religiosity” of which religion would be the *dominant* manifestation (which couldn’t be said of agent-finding, say). Thus religion is selected for.

    • Microraptor
      Posted September 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      But “religion” isn’t a single trait, it’s a combination of traits, and what constitutes religion and religious beliefs can change rather dramatically among cultures. How can it be selected for?

      • Posted September 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        How can it be a side-effect, which is what Coyne advocates?

        and:

        “what we’d find would be a trait that would be defined more generically than “religiosity” of which religion would be the *dominant* manifestation (which couldn’t be said of agent-finding, say). Thus religion [would be] selected for.”

        And if you want to argue that religion can’t be defined for these purposes, you should start by asking Coyne, et al what it is they are constantly condemning here.

        • Microraptor
          Posted September 7, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

          You know, Richard Dawkins already devoted a chapter to how religion could be selected as a side effect in The God Delusion. I don’t feel the urge to rehash everything he said here.

  39. Jimbo
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    One of my objections to the NPR article was more fundamental. The argument of that piece goes – religion aids cooperation, cooperation leads to development. Needless to say it is highly flawed and doesn’t stand up. If it were true why are ants not as developed as us and do they perhaps qualify as the most spiritual animals? The other problem with this argument is that it assumes religion only alters behaviour in a positive way which we know isn’t true. It also alters it in relatively benign ways (dietary restrictions) and in negative ways (human sacrifice, suicide bombing). History is probably also littered with examples of groups which were entirely wiped out by their religious beliefs.

  40. What a maroon
    Posted September 8, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Religion was invented by the parent of a three year old after about the 50th consecutive “why” question. “Because god says so! Now shut up and finish your mammoth.”

  41. Posted September 8, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    My point is that if religion can be a side effect of selection it can also be selected for. If you cannot define religion vis-a-via the one process, you cannot define it for the other either.

    If you can say that “religion” is the side-effect of some genetic change that has other important manifestations that caused that change to become fixed, then you can also say that religion is the manifestation that caused a genetic change to become fixed, in which case it would be fair to say it was selected for.

  42. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Okay, let’s stop right there. A behavior that is widespread, or universal, need not have evolved, or been selected for directly. Let’s take a common one: masturbation…

    Interestingly, someone has made the case for that:
    The Scientific Case for Masturbation
    by Sharon Begley

    “The science is straightforward. Whenever a behavior is common in the animal kingdom, biologists suspect it has an adaptive function. That is, the behavior enabled individual animals to survive better and leave more offspring than animals that did not engage in the behavior. As a result, genes for the behavior spread throughout that population until it became essentially ubiquitous. And so it is with autoeroticism, which is common—really common…”


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