May 30, 2007

Eskeptic on the Evolutionary Basis of Religion

In the most recent edition of eskeptic (, skeptic Paul Gabel gives a detailed account of communist Russia's failed attempt to eradicate religion through persecution. He rightly points out that these tactics have little chance of success. Religious (and to some degree Christian) belief not only survives in Russia but characterizes the majority of the population. This is not atypical among persecuted Christian peoples. As the church father Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." What is interesting and difficult to take seriously is Gabel's preferred explanation for why the communists could not succeed. Here it is in his own words:

My personal theory, which is as plausible and unprovable as any other, is that a
religious sense exists as a consequence of the evolutionary process. Over
millions of years hominids with larger brains were favored due to their improved
ability to interact socially, communicate linguistically, and obtain food. As
computational power expanded, these same brains incidentally acquired the
ability to grasp their loneliness in the larger world and to anticipate their own deaths. Those who could not imagine a purpose for living turned to less purposeful lives and were marginally less likely to survive to reproductive age, or even to be interested in reproduction. As people without purpose were weeded out of the gene pool, increasingly large percentages of the surviving population were capable of turning their powerful minds to thoughts of gods, whose “existence” would itself become the purpose of life. Man became an animal that could no longer “live in a world it is unable to understand.”

What is almost ludicrous about this theory is Gabel's implied claim that religion ought to be eliminated from human society. Religion, Gabel apparently thinks, is a bad thing and we would be better off without it. Though religion is "built-in" to our species by evolution, Gabel points to examples of people who resist certain natural impulses (e.g., priests and nuns who make vows of celibacy) to show that, if we value rationality and humanism, we "can overcome a natural religious tendency."

But if religion is really hardwired into us as a survival mechanism, why would or should we wish it to be eradicated any more than we (including Gabel, I suppose) would want to eradicate our sexual desires? If religion contributes to survival, then why not keep it around? Indeed, if most people still "feel the need" for religion, then it probably, on Gabel's theory, is still performing a survival function at least for those people--and on evolutionary grounds that would be a good thing (insofar as athiests can talk coherently about "good" and "bad").

Perhaps Gabel thinks that religion has outlived its usefulness as a survival mechanism; perhaps he might point to religious oppression in the world (Inquisition, Crusades, etc.) to show that religion is now harmful, not benificial. Now rationality and humanism are better suited to our survival. But, why should we believe that? Why can't we see even religious oppression as part of the survival mechanism inherent in religion per se?--people have an innate impulse to defend their religious convictions when they feel them threatened because in their genes is an unconscious "awareness" that religion is necessary for human survival. (I'm not advocating this view, just arguing that there is no reason why Gabel's own theory shouldn't lead to this conclusion rather than the one he would likely draw.)

Would Gabel claim that there is something inherently immoral about religious oppression? It's hard to see how he could say that on his own principles. Neither can he say that rationality and humanism are somehow morally better ways for us to live. His only argument will have to be a pragmatic one, one that shows that religion doesn't contribute to survival as well as some other mechanism. But, I think he would be hard pressed to prove that.


MichaelGlawson said...

I would wonder if Gabel would have some evolutionary explanation for why humans have ubiquitously invented such an incredibly complex, yet totally false or meaningless concept as ultimate purpose. Doesn't seem to be beneficial for survival since most anyone's definition of ultimate purpose would involve it being worth dying for.

Enjoyed dinner.

Anonymous said...

To play Lucifer's advocate, for a moment: Gabel and many skeptics would argue that just because something may have some benefits does not mean it is worth keeping. An example would be paper-and-pen journals as opposed to blogs. They are convenient and tangible, but for many, their benefits are outweighed by the blog and internet world. Similarly, he could argue that we ought to 'step out of' our religious inclinations because it is, theoretically, possible for us to outgrow them in the future.

It is similar to the common ethical opinion we hold as Christians, that one ought to supress or outmaneuver evil instincts and instead replace them with altruistic and holy behaviours.

The point at which Gabel's argument would fall apart, of course, is the detailed historical documentation we have of technology, skepticism, and religious opression causing havoc, while the figue of Christ remains steadfast and luminous. Further, if his evolutionary process meant for us to have religion, then it makes more sense that we will evolve into a more religious, and, in the Christian view, righteous people as a result, instead of 'outgrowing' morality in the favor of computerized lifestyles.

Thank you for the post. *smiles*