Plots and Thoughts

Evolution, Religion and Bullshit

Posted in Analysis, Observations, Strategy by Captain Optimistic on November 19, 2009

Gather round for a lesson in poor reporting.  The NYTimes has an article on the relationship between evolution and religion, and wow do they make a zinger of a mistake (I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the stupid for your convenience):

This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. 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.

For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

Let’s look at the fallacies:

  • Failure to consider co-evolved vs evolved traits
  • Failure to consider vestigial traits

If the traits necessary to support religion did evolve for a purpose, what proof do we have that purpose still persists to this day?  Or that those traits are the best solution?

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

What effects do rituals have today?  How does this kind of tribalism and tendency to follow the leader play out in today’s global society?  Looking at religion through the lens of an evolved trait lends it an additional appearance of usefulness and legitimacy.

All this allows that the traits which support religion evolved directly, and didn’t co-evolve with other directly beneficial evolutionary traits.  Following the logic present in Nicholas Wade’s article, one might consider anything from red hair to armed conflict to be “evolved”.  They too have “occurred in societies at every stage of development”.

This article is one in a long line of “gee golly” articles meant to lend religion the legitimacy of science.  They let faith put on a labcoat and call itself doctor.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of detente between religion and science? Biologists and many atheists have a lot of respect for evolution and its workings, and if they regarded religious behavior as an evolved instinct they might see religion more favorably, or at least recognize its constructive roles

Religion can be viewed, and judged, within the context of its impact on society today and historically.  The addition of pseudo-scientific hypothesis about religion as an evolved trait will not clarify the debate over the role of religion in society.  It can only muddy the water.  And at some point we must question why so many of religion’s proponents feel the need to dip into trickery and dishonesty to prop up their cosmology. And we must re-evaluate our own responses keeping that tendency in mind.  Especially when responding to apologists who hide under a guise of science.


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