Last Sunday, The New York Times Magazine’s cover article – which remained the #1 emailed Times piece for several days – was entitled “Darwin’s God,” and it focused on the efforts to explain the existence of religion as a product of evolution.
The author was careful to say the question is “not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.”
Evolutionary biologists have come up against a wall when it comes to the existence of religion; Darwinism teaches that in order for traits to survive, they must contribute either to survival or reproduction, and while the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants – both today and stretching back into the mists of prehistory – believe in the existence of the supernatural, religion seems “to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival.”
Many of the ideas discussed in this article are fascinating and plausible; I enthusiastically recommend it. But I could not help noticing that I did not recognize Christianity in their descriptions of religion. Scott Atran, an anthropologist, feels that “so many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world,” and that “religious belief requires taking ‘what is materially false to be true’ and ‘what is materially true to be false.’”
Whoa. No wonder Mr. Atran finds religion inscrutable. I would challenge any of my skeptic/atheist/agnostic readers to identify any belief I profess that is “materially false." True, I hold some beliefs which are beyond the province of empirical scientific study, but by that very distinction they cannot be labeled, even by a noted anthropologist, as “materially false.” The author, Robin Marantz Henig, ponders, “what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism’s cold, hard scrutiny?”
Umm…me? Unlike many of my fundamentalist counterparts, I am not afraid of scientific inquiry. I believe in God, and I believe God is ultimate truth, and therefore I believe any honest inquiry, even a scientific one, leads to God. And I find nothing in any of the theories offered here that gives me significant pause for thought over whether there really is a God. Moreover, I find the research that clearly indicates children are predisposed to “believe in omniscience, invisible minds [and] immaterial souls” is evidence in favor of the Divine. Whether those beliefs take the form of an organized theology has to do with the culture and environment in which the children grow up, but the tendency toward faith appears to be innate and universal, despite having no evolutionary benefit. It shatters the conventional secular wisdom that children are “brainwashed” into religion; it rather suggests that one must be trained into atheism, instead.
And even if there is an objective, purely scientific, evolutionary explanation for why people believe in the existence of God, so what? Scientist Justin Barrett asks, “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me – should I then stop believing that she does?”
At the risk of chauvinism, even though I believe all the spiritual traditions of the world contain wisdom and truth, the sophisticated theology of the major faiths deserve more credit than to be casually derided as superstition or easy comfort in a meaningless world. Christianity in particular, while clearly prone to perversion for personal or political purposes, is not simply a refuge for people who are afraid of death, as this article proposes.