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Evolution for a Few or Evolution for Everyone? A Survey of Hypotheses about the Evolutionary Origin of Religion

Casey Luskin

religiontop-rd.jpgWhy did religion arise in the human species? Stanley Fish has a blog post at the New York Times observing that Richard Dawkins, “finds that the manufacturing and growth of religion is best described in evolutionary terms: ‘[R]eligions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering — and sometimes dangerous — richness of diversity.'”

Dawkins isn’t the only scientist who takes this kind of approach. David Sloan Wilson is getting a lot of attention these days regarding his views on the evolutionary origin of religion. Wilson is much more serious in his approach than Dawkins, but Wilson has been frank regarding how many academics view religion through an evolutionary perspective. In his Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2002), he observes that “inside and outside the ivory tower, religion is often portrayed as costly for the believer, delivering at best only vague psychic benefits in return.” (pg. 86) He declares his aim “to study religious groups the way I and other evolutionary biologists routinely study trees, bacteria, and the rest of life on earth.” (pg. 87) Wilson also exposes the mindset among some academics that “[r]eligious folk should abandon their beliefs in the face of superior knowledge and if they don’t they are being irrational.” (pg. 41)

While Wilson urges his readers to resist the temptation to ridicule religion as irrational, he himself nonetheless contends that “many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the real world” and specifically takes aim at Christianity, writing that an atheist historian would be “factually attached to … reality” while the Gospels of the New Testament provide may good wisdom but ultimately “distort the facts of the real world.” (pg. 228)

Is “Evolution for Everyone”?
To his credit, Wilson is very open about his own religious background: In his more recent book Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Delacorte Press, 2007), he acknowledges that “[m]y own background is not at all religious” and describes his father as highly “scornful of religion.” (pg. 236) Wilson recounts his “father’s gleeful expression” after telling a story about a preacher that boasted about the wealth in a church congregation, “as if the hypocrisy of all religion had been revealed.” (pg. 236) Nonetheless, Wilson is steadfast in stating that we should not view religion as a bad thing and praises John Marks Templeton for supporting research that seeks harmony between science and religion, and for being willing to fund “a proposal on religion from an evolutionary perspective.” (pg. 236)

This is most interesting: Wilson titles his book “Evolution for Everyone,” but how would “everyone” feel about the leading evolutionary hypotheses he describes that are put forward to explain an evolutionary origin of religion? According to Wilson, religious persons can select from any one of five evolutionary hypotheses to explain why their religion, and religion in general, exists:

  • Religious “groups are a product of cultural group selection and are indeed like bodies and beehives.” (pg. 237)
  • Religion is “exposed as a scam operation, with the leaders fleecing rather than leading their flocks.” (pg. 238)
  • Religion is “like disease epidemics that leave everyone worse off than before, leaders and followers alike.” (pg. 238)
  • Religion is “like obesity, something that we do because we can’t help it, even though it is no longer good for us.” (pg. 238)
  • Religion is “like mad monkeys and a dog’s curly tail, which have no function and persist only by virtue of a connection to something else that does.” (pg. 238)

So if evolution is truly “for everyone,” then religious persons can apparently choose to view their religion as one of the following: a “scam operation,” a “disease epidemic,” useless “obesity,” a “mad monkey” with “no function,” –or they can view religion like “bodies and beehives.”

Obviously the final option would likely be the least offensive to religious persons, and indeed it coheres with the description of that some religions give about themselves (for example, Christianity sometimes compares the Christian church to a body with many parts that contribute to benefit the whole). The “beehive” analogy is the explanation preferred by Wilson, although of course Wilson views “bodies and beehives” as undesigned objects that arose via unguided evolutionary processes.

Would most religions see themselves as the result of an undesigned and unguided process, or would they see themselves as somehow directly inspired by the divine? If Wilson is right that evolution is “for everyone,” then I suppose religious persons who accept Neo-Darwinism can take their pick:

How To Explain Religion Under an Evolutionary Paradigm–Theistic Evolutionists, You Can Take Your Pick:

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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