Evolution and Religion May Not Be BFFs

best friendFrom Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

This week in The New York Times, Nicholas Wade reports on an archaeological dig that gives us “remarkable insight into the origin of religion.” Every society has sported its own religious history, and this can be interpreted as a favorable adjustment by evolution, he says: “Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”
Wade draws a parallel with human language—just as we have the genetic predisposition to learn both our native language and native religion, so too is it culture that supplies the content of what is learned in both.
What is perhaps more controversial in the religion-as-favorable-variation assertion is how natural selection apparently operated on groups of humans, thus socially binding people together, favoring the community’s interest by introducing rules of self-restraint. Such variation motivated favorable attitudes toward rituals and to sacrifice in battles against outsiders. Over time, this group selection on religious behaviors would give some communities certain competitive advantages over others; hence, the genes controlling for those behaviors would become universal.
As a metaphysical matter, Wade delimits just what can be claimed: “That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods”—or of “God,” I’d add, depending on whether one decries grammar or polytheism; but his point is well taken. Still, I want to take a different angle and reflect not on what’s real (metaphysics), but on what we can know about such explanations (epistemology).
First, I’ll recount an “old school” problem. No one is correct who, for instance, stares through a high-powered, infrared telescope, notes the newly discovered 24-million-mile diameter dust ring around Saturn, and then subsequently posits how God has placed that dust ring there for a purpose—perhaps to beautify the solar system for our viewing pleasure. Such goal-directedness graffitied onto all entities within physics does vandalism to its methods as a science. However, I suspect that some of my pious peers will be sorely tempted to say that God has placed that religious impulse into the heart of humankind for a purpose—perhaps to quicken group solidarity of our africanus whatevericus ancestors for our survival advantage. Such goal-directedness graffitied onto biology is equally problematic.
Second, I raise a caution about future fights, or even break ups, between evolutionary explanations and religious assessments. By means of evolution, a trait might evolve for one reason, but have its beneficial effects for quite another reason once the trait has expressed itself. A function of a trait can come to vary over time. For example, Wade notes that religion would embolden community members to give their lives in battle against outsiders. But if human culture were to eventually see the true folly of war, and thus outlaw it at a planetary level (much as it has done for slavery), then that beneficial effect for group solidarity would no longer offer a fitness advantage—at least for the mere benefit of better cooperation in warfare conditions (since there would no longer be war). In this hypothetical case, religion would function something like an appendix or the tailbone, a vestigal leftover from a time long ago, for survival conditions that no longer exist.  (Vestigal organs are structures remaining or surviving in a degenerate, atrophied, or imperfect condition or form. Many animals have them.)
Some people are born without appendices, and if it could be shown, as is occasionally argued, that some people are just not genetically inclined to interpret their own inner experiences as religious people do, then “nonreligionism” (something akin to an I-don’t-care version of atheism or agnosticism) in some form or function could come into vogue as the best fitness condition for human group selection.
So, for as long as humans choose to maintain themselves as biological beings, whether religion would or would not offer the human species any sort of survival advantage remains a contingent matter. In other words, the current romance between evolution and religion may indeed be offering a fitness advantage, but there will always be the opportunity for a big break up.

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