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.