Religion and Evolution

There has been another rash of religious discussions of religion-nonreligion controversies in the New York Times. One, by its religion editor, summarized some harsh criticisms of scientific god-bashers that have recently been issued by other scientists. Essentially, the criticism of the god-bashers is that their learning is not grounded sufficiently in theology to mount an effective and convincing case against the religionists. In fact, some of the critics have studied a good deal of theology. But the essential point is that the study of theology is hardly a necessary prelude to a criticism of many aspects of religion. It is as though one said that astrology could not be criticized without a thorough grounding in the arcana of astrology, or that Voodoo can only be dismissed by those thoroughly indoctrinated in its rituals and beliefs.

In the most general terms two levels of the discussion should be distinguished. One level addresses the question of whether there is a god who intervenes directly in human affairs, or, in other words, a god who can be prayed to with an assumption that prayers will move him (or her) to a particular action. The atheist says that this assumption fails on three grounds. First, there is little or no evidence of the effectiveness of prayers to such a god. Second, there is no conceivable mechanism by which such a god would intervene. Third, there is no conceivable reason why such a god, if he or she existed, would want to intervene in human affairs. It doesn’t take much theology to make these arguments. On the second level, we can understand god to be an indescribable entity or force existing outside of time and the events of our lives. This God may be a prime mover or the creator, the being responsible for it all. This God cannot be disproved by science. However, since it is a scientific principle that what cannot be disproved, cannot be proven, the existence of God, and of belief in such a God, lies beyond the concern of scientists who attack religion.

The question of how evolution might have brought about religious belief, or specifically belief in God is more interesting. This Sunday’s NY Times magazine has a somewhat confusing account of the ways in which anthropologists have approached this issue. We need not consider the bulk of their evidence. But the discussion led me to raise two points. First, Human beings are probably the only creatures with an existential consciousness. Specifically, they are the only creatures who are conscious of the fact that they and those dear to them will die, will apparently cease to exist, bringing to an end all that their existence has meant. It does seem likely that much of religion has been created as a psychological defense against the acknowledgement of this fact. This defense would obviously have survival value, for it would make possible more confidence in a variety of situations, including mortal combat and resistance to disease, and those with more confidence would have more progeny etc. Secondly, religious beliefs and symbols when shared by the members of a community have a survival value for that community, for it gives the individuals in it something of value beyond the values specific to the individuals in it. To believe in a group’s religion is actually to believe in the group and its values, to share in its existence. It might appear that it would not make a great deal of difference what these beliefs were. But it may also make a difference in that the more irrational the beliefs, the more they go against normal ways of thinking, the greater the sacrifice of the members in adhering and adhering openly and repeatedly to these beliefs. I have often noticed that groups that appear to have particularly unlikely beliefs, such as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are also those most likely to sacrifice for their group. The strength of their group is enhanced by their flagrant willingness to set aside the natural for the supernatural. Fundamentalisms thrive on this fact; at the extreme violent cults thrive even more on this willingness. Incidentally, to make this last point is to accept the position that evolution is based as much on the ability of groups to survive and procreate as that of individuals. Although many biologists appear to reject this position, I simply do not understand their rejection.

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