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New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade has made a Darwinian case for the religion instinct. From Commonweal’s mostly favorable review of Wade’s book:
Again, religion is important to Wade only because it is biologically adaptive: it has fostered the survival of populations of human genes from one generation to the next. Embracing a neo-Darwinian view of life, Wade claims that religion, like language and intelligence, has enabled human survival by inclining us toward group cohesion. Natural selection has equipped us with a religious longing for dialogue with supernatural beings, and this propensity has in turn fostered a sense of “sociality” and other emotions essential to dealing with the omnipresent threat of extinction at the hands of nature and hostile human groups.An adaptive religious tendency to negotiate with “supernatural agents” was already fixed in the human genome even before a small ancestral human flock emigrated from Africa fifty thousand years ago and started slowly populating the rest of the planet. All human beings living today have inherited the primordial human family’s religious propensity genetically, and not just culturally. Fortified by Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser’s proposal that human beings all share a universal moral grammar comparable to the innate syntactical rules for linguistic expression unearthed by Noam Chomsky, Wade locates our capacity for religion in a similar biologically hardwired preserve.
Theologically speaking, this is an interesting idea. For if the faith instinct is firmly rooted in the human genome, it would follow that the radically secularist project of banishing all traces of faith from our world, as the “new atheists” demand, would be biologically, and not just culturally, calamitous.
This dovetails with Stanley Fish’s discussion of Jurgen Habermas’s new position on religion, namely that there’s something about the human person that is naturally religious, and that we should keep religion around for the sake of holding society meaningfully together, but mostly keep it in a box. As ought to be obvious, this won’t do. An instrumentalized religion is useless; nobody believes in God because belief in God is good for you — and if they do, they won’t for long, because that’s nonsense. You lose the fear of God, you lose the charismatic essence of religion, the source of its power. As Philip Rieff wrote in his posthumously published book “Charisma,” you cannot have effective religion without charisma, which entails “holy terror,” his name for an instinctive response to the presence of absolute truth and authority, i.e., God. To believe there are no creeds — that is, no statement of moral truth that binds with the power of metaphysics — is to accept that there is no God, at least no god that matters very much. If, as Habermas seems to recognize now, humankind cannot live successfully without authentic religion to some degree, it would make sense that, whether or not God really exists (Wade doesn’t seem to believe that he does), we need Him to exist for the sake of our own survival as a species. Again, though, once you start to see God as a useful concept, and not literal divinity, God loses all power.
Wade’s argument, as presented by the Commonweal reviewer at least, suggests that in the long term, those who believe in the old-fashioned way in God will survive, and those who don’t will not. Secular liberals like demograper Phillip Longman would seem to agree. The well-known skeptic Michael Shermer agrees too that evidence suggests humans are hard-wired for God. Excerpt:
Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, intelligent designers and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.
On the other hand, Gregory Paul, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argues that belief in God is not innate. Read past the jump for an excerpt and commentary:
If a behavior is such a core means of survival that it must be strongly genetically fixed, then it will be truly universal. DNA preprograms humans to learn language so well that by age 5, children engage in intelligible conversations. The fully opposable thumbs that make humans distinct from other primates evolved for the materialism that more than anything else pushes the ambition and achievement that drives civilization. Around the globe language flourishes and the vast majority craves material goods; they are genuinely universal.
The same cannot be said about popular religiosity, which is highly variable in ways that have important implications for human societies and the nature of belief. According to Gallup and other surveys, the number of Americans who believe in something paranormal (eight in 10) is about the same as those who believe in God. However, it is the latter opinion that counts in the cultural and political wars.
How consistent is serious religious worship in humans? Even in hunter-gatherers there is remarkable divergence. While the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a well-developed complex of beliefs, the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion that does not include belief in an afterlife. Religion is easily cast off in the face of modernity. Among Western nations, religion is a strong majority influence only in the U.S. In other advanced democracies, religion is in such sharp decline that majorities are skeptical that there is a God in some Western European countries, including France and Denmark, as well as Japan. Church attendance fell rapidly in Europe in the closing decades of the last century, declining up to sixfold in nations like Belgium and Holland. Phil Zuckerman’s “A Society Without God” shows how many Western Europeans casually and nonideologically dismiss the possibility of gods or an afterlife. British sociologist Steve Bruce has shown that Western de-Christianization has not been countered by a commensurate rise in alternative beliefs. And surveys have shown that Western scientists are more atheistic than the general public.
Paul goes on to argue that evidence shows that in conditions of democracy and material prosperity, belief in God declines. He writes, “Faith is proving unable to thrive in well-run democracies, and its abandonment can occur with startling speed when conditions become good enough.”
Paul is self-aware enough to note that the Bible strongly warns against wealth as corrosive of belief in God. It’s not hard to understand why, Paul points out: when people feel more secure in their material existence, they no longer feel compelled to rely on supernatural agency for comfort and a sense of ultimate order. That should make sense to everybody, believers and skeptics alike — for the Bible tells us so! Yet Paul’s point is that if belief in God were wired into our genes, it wouldn’t be so easy to eradicate belief in God and the supernatural from our species. It would take far more than two or three generations of relative prosperity to do it. Yet look at godless Europe. Look at de-Christianizing America. The richest nations on Earth are also the most godless. You can make a sociological or theoretical critique of this fact, but Paul comes at it from a biological angle.
I’m digressing all over the place, but I want to say that having read Shermer’s piece and Paul’s, it seems to me that the death of God can only really occur in wealthy societies. But wealth is not permanent. Should our materially prosperous civilization collapse — as it eventually will — the Darwinian point of view suggests that those who survive and thrive will be those with the strongest God-sense, and those who, having suppressed the God instinct, rediscover it. The rest will wither.