Friday, March 09, 2007

The God of Evolution

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.


kr said...

That is a LONG article. But interesting.

'Bit putting the cart before the horse, the section on the religious vs secular Isreali communes ... the suggestion that the daily-devotional communities survived better because they were in the habit of thinking communally really ignores the choices--many and continual, over years and years--that those people made to get themselves into that habit. A clear value judgment by the community members. individually and collectively, and notably logically different than the judgments implied by other choices. But then, self discipline and free choice are very big ideas in my religion, and I suppose not so much in a group-evolution, can-it-just-be-biology theoretical exercise ;).

kr said...

Second reaction (let's see if FG still hovers out there ; ) ):

Funny stuff, spiritualism.

An interesting explanation that rather fits the data (if you accept the data as such; obviously it is more qualitative than quantitative ;) ) is that independent "spiritual" beings are in some way affected by electromagnetics. The more ambient electromagnetic energy, the less they show up ...

... hence they are more closely associated with
ancient cultures
times closest to midnight (least sunlight)
especially dark "moonless" nights (no sunlight)
dark woods/wild places
remote homesteads
abandoned buildings
unused parts of buildings (incl. basements and closets)

... and least associated with
cities (the bigger the city the fewer the bogeys)
computers (think about that--I've never ever heard of a bogey near a computer, anyone else? I don't think a ghost associated with a computer would ring true ... )
daytime/light (fire seems less effective than electrical lights)
modern times

possible exception being the theory that UFO sightings are (mostly?) related to nuclear tests (again, it rather fits the data ... the period when people were seeing them all the time in the sky was when we did above-ground testing--in other nuclear nations, too, not just the US) ... whatever that means. (One has to hope that if the UFOs were somehow related to sentients that they didn't manifest underground for our later tests ... that might have been ... uncomfortable ... ; P. )

Haven't quite figured out why isolated individuals are, in the lore, more prone to unpleasant spiritual experiences, and why groups are generally "safer" (pending that they don't purposely invite spirits in, of course) ...

In any case, if the electromagnetic thing is at all accurate, just living a modern life makes it infinitely easier to be an atheist, and should make those of us who still experience the spirits glad that we live in this apparently tamer time ... I can't even imagine living with what the ancients might have had to live with : P!

But of course this takes spiritualism FAR more seriously than most of the article's theorists can probably even begin to consider doing. The Brothers Grimm and Nathaniel Hawthorne's much-heralded "symbolic" use of the dark woods to represent chaos can hardly be truly accepted materiel even for the anthropologists, no matter how much they represent then-contemporary cultural norms and assumptions, and taking Greek myths and the Old Testament as serious descriptions would simply be ridiculous. (Except, of course, to the fantasy-fiction writers who make their money because a lot of people still at some level believe in supernaturalism ... although JK Rowling may signal a sea-change there, as her books, decidedly fantastical, do not involve a God, nor any spiritual battle--only a moral one, between beings that are all decidedly "natural" in the context of her world.)

Spiritualism--an increasingly lost reality or never anything except a product of our evolutionary spandrels?

I wish "science" had not turned away from the direct study of it while we were still in the gaslight era.