There’s an interesting article in Science (326, 784-787) about what one might call the natural history of religion, reviewing current thought on how it might have arisen for evolutionary and cognitive reasons. Now, this is of course potentially dodgy territory, because it is a trivial matter to construct nice evolutionary-psychological Just So stories for why a propensity for religious belief might have had survival benefits. But Elizabeth Culotta’s article shows that the basic question is a serious one, and is being given some well-considered attention.
And this set me thinking what my friends the New Atheists make of it all. For the peculiar fact is that it seems more or less essential to their position, dare one say even an article of faith, that religion is not a product of evolution at all. They seem determined to believe (contra Darwin himself) that religion, perhaps almost uniquely among major behavioural traits of human populations, has no genetic component.
That would seem to be the view, for example, of P. Z. Myers. Apropos of my exchange with Sam Harris on science and religion, he said ‘It's a weird thing to argue with an atheist who claims religion is unavoidable (Oh? So what's so special about you?)’ – which, when you think about it, has the same absurd logic as the suggestion (I trust believers to humour this metaphor) that the existence of people without criminal records means that criminality is obviously avoidable in society. And besides, as I have mentioned before, this was a particularly lazy reading of my comments, since I pointed out only that we have notably failed to ‘avoid’ religion throughout history so far (I don’t think we need to debate that, do we?). I have no idea if it is ‘avoidable’ in any abstract sense, or even what that might mean.
Yet the odd thing is that I somewhat share Myers’ scepticism. To conclude from the near-ubiquity of religion in human culture that it must therefore be a genetic endowment seems rather akin to concluding that, say, schools or financial systems must be the products of our genes. Yet of course the argument is not quite as simple as that. For example, David Comings in California has found that the gene encoding DRD4, a protein that modulates the neurotransmission of dopamine, is present in a more active form in people who show a greater propensity to believe in miracles, mysticism and a spiritual supreme force, and less active in people with rationalist tendencies. I’m not about to answer Myers’ question ‘what’s so special about me?’ by saying that I must have a less active variety of DRD4; but neither am I (nor he) in any position to deny that such factors might play a role. Nonetheless, religiosity is hardly distributed throughout society in the patchy, pseudo-random manner of many genetically based diseases, and I’m inclined to attribute much more to culture than to genes. Certainly, it doesn’t seem likely to be very profitable to search in our genes for reasons why one might believe that (say) the Earth is 10,000 years old.
But genes and culture are not so easily disentangled if a genetic tendency towards religion were very widespread. Some believe that it is. Lee Silver points out in his 2006 book Challenging Nature that ‘in no country of the world ever surveyed do reported levels of spirituality dip below 60 percent’ and that ‘all the evolutionary, genetic, and cultural studies and analyses… make it clear that our own biology, rather than divine spirits or society at large, is the primary source of human spirituality.’ (Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t believe Myers has taken the heavyweight Silver to task over this.) He adds that that ‘this conclusion is anathema to both dogmatic theists and postmodern atheists’ – for, if religion is an innate tendency rather than a foolish belief system foisted upon us by indoctrination, can we really hope to persuade the general population to discard it, whatever one-off conversions Sam Harris and his friends might celebrate? And yet – this is the truly bizarre thing – Sam utterly refused to engage with the milder and perhaps more ‘optimistic’ possibility (from that perspective) that I suggested, which is that religion might instead be one of those cultural phenomena, like monarchy, that commonly emerges from the nature of our social interactions and structures.
Specifically, what I said to Sam was this:
“I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure.”
He responded thus:
“It is amazing that you can advance this as a serious position. First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions… For the purposes of this discussion, the only “social construct” that I am worried about is the one which convinces a journal like Nature that its paramount duty is to be polite in the face of Iron Age delusions.”
Religions, says Sam, are a "dangerous, deplorable, and unnecessary eruption of primeval stupidity". I guess that rules out genes, then.
So I look forward to Sam’s letter to Science pointing out that it is amazing they let Culotta present her article as a ‘serious position’. Of course, if indeed we have ‘religion in our genes’ (which is by no means clear, but which is what Silver and several of the people Culotta quotes seem to suspect), this doesn’t imply that we are predestined all to be believers, or that people can’t be persuaded to abandon religious irrationality. But it would suggest that at the level of cultures, the problem is not exactly what Sam thinks it is. He and Paul Myers seem determined to reject anything like a Darwinian view (and moreover anything like a sociological view) in favour of the notion that this universal phenomenon is just the product of blinkered ignorance. In fact I sense that they actually don’t give a fig about understanding religion – which, I have to suspect, means they are unlikely to have much effect in tempering its destructive and oppressive excesses. They seem to prefer the John Major position: that we need to understand less and condemn more. Well, it works for the Tories.