Evolutionary Science: Deconstructing (Other Peoples’) Religious Beliefs

Michael Egnor

bible_study_small.pngA recent study in American Scientist should ignite a blaze of research in evolutionary psychology. In Evolution, Religion, and Free Will, Gregory Graffin and William Provine report their survey of the religious beliefs of eminent evolutionary scientists. The results are striking. Evolutionary scientists hold views about God and religious belief that are radically at odds with those of most Americans. To evolutionary scientists such extreme variance from the mainstream views would normally raise fascinating questions about selection factors associated with atheist adaptation. Graffin and Provine’s study should give rise to scores of papers about the evolutionary origins of atheism.
But it won’t.

There’s no doubt that the religious beliefs of evolutionary scientists are radically different from those of most Americans. Graffin and Provine’s study, called the Cornell Evolution Project, evaluated the results of a questionnaire returned by 149 leading evolutionary scientists about their religious beliefs. Eighty percent of evolutionary scientists were strict atheists. Another six percent expressed atheist beliefs, but left some room for ‘mystery’. About five percent were deists, and five percent had a more or less traditional belief in God. Religious beliefs of evolutionary scientists are the inverse of the beliefs of the American public, nearly ninety percent of whom believe in God.
Yet the authors note that the great majority of evolutionary scientists (nearly ninety percent) see no conflict between religion and evolution. Ironically, this is not because evolutionary scientists believe that religion and science represent different ‘magisteria’, but because they believe that religious belief is a product of evolution. The vast majority of evolutionary scientists attribute belief in God to evolutionary mechanisms. That is, they deconstruct belief in God, and imply that it is merely an adaptive trait, or an accident– a spandrel. Evolutionary scientists’ own scientific opinions about the evolutionary origin of belief in God correspond quite nicely to their own personal religious disbelief.
But then what is the evolutionary origin of disbelief in God? If evolutionary scientists were unbiased in their approach to the study of religious belief, they would study the evolutionary origins of their own beliefs, as well as the origins of the beliefs of others. Despite the significant evolutionary questions raised by the adherence of a group of intelligent well-educated professionals to a fringe ideology–atheism– that has had a profound influence on the 20th century, evolutionary scientists show no interest in honest evolutionary introspection. That’s surprising if their interest is genuinely scientific, but quite unsurprising if they are advancing an implicit or explicit ideological agenda with their work.
For evolutionary scientists, deconstructing religious belief is a method applied to other peoples’ beliefs. Graffin and Provine, unpreturbed by this double standard and by the implications for the integrity of evolutionary science, point out the pragmatic implications of evolutionary scientists’ obvious theological bias:

Eminent evolutionists…worry that the public association of evolution with atheism or at least nonreligion will hurt evolutionary biology, perhaps impeding its funding or acceptance…Seeing religion as a sociobiological feature of human evolution, while a plausible hypothesis, denies all worth to religious truths.

Senator Sam Brownback recently pointed out in his New York Times essay that some aspects of evolutionary theory are atheistic theology, disguised as science. As Graffin and Provine’s study demonstrates, the evidence supporting Brownback’s assertion is overwhelming.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.