Friday, June 20, 2014

Evolution and Religion

My anonymous commenter is quite persistent. IT is a good thing. I enjoy the debates. This post is a response to one of his longer thoughts.
religion is widespread I agree, and A Darwinian faced with something which is ubiquitous in a species naturally starts to wonder, what is the Darwinian survival value of that thing , and so the fact that religion is universal in all cultures – not in all individuals but in all cultures – should lead us to ask that question. And I think there’s got to be, in some sense, an evolutionary advantage – although not necessarily to religion itself. We need to rephrase that question, as we often need to rephrase questions about Darwinian survival value. The question should be, “What is the Darwinian survival value of having the kind of brain which manifests itself in religion under some circumstances?” – under some cultural circumstances, in this case. A helpful analogy is moths flying into candle flames. [details moth analogy deleted]
This is a classic objection to atheism. Why do humans seem wired towards religion? Does it not at the very least prove religion has been good for the human species? Of course that does not prove it is true. It does make one wonder why any atheist would want to rid the world of religion. If that is the normal human way to be then why try and get people to stop being that way? If being religious is like having hair and being atheist is like shaving your head bald then it is OK to be bald. Still why go around insisting others should shave their hair?

Children need to believe everything their parents tell them. On average, the rule of thumb, believe what your parents tell you, is a good rule of thumb for a child, because in a world in which wild humans lived, children could not afford to learn for themselves what to do, and what not to do. You can’t learn from experience not to bathe in the river because there might be crocodiles, you have to believe your parents who say it’s dangerous to bathe in the river. You can’t be programmed in advance with all necessary knowledge, but the rule of thumb is programming in advance that is designed to cope with whatever knowledge, whatever information, whatever statements your parents give you.
Children do believe their parents to a point. As they get to be teens they trust them less and less. Each generation tends to accept the wisdom of the past but also question it. Eventually the reasons are explained and when they become adults they decide whether it still makes sense. They might move to a different area where the river does not have crocodiles. 
And that kind of programming is automatically vulnerable to parasitic information, to mental viruses.So a brain which is designed to believe statements like “Don’t bathe in the river because of the crocodiles!” can’t help believing information like “Sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon to appease the gods.” How can the child tell the difference between those two? Bathing in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles, if you don’t sacrifice a goat the gods will get you. It’s the equivalent to the moth and the candle flame argument.
People are going to get ideas about religion from their parents. It is silly to that could be the only reason they continue to practice their faith. At some level they must being getting something from it or they would stop doing it. Why does the idea of appeasing the god make sense? They must feel they have offended the gods in some way. 

We feel guilt. Modern society keeps telling us not to feel guilty about anything. It does not really work. We know we did wrong. If that feeling came solely from our parents then it would be gone from society by now. It isn't. It goes deeper than that. In fact, many feel it implies the existence of God. It is called the moral argument for God. Read the first couple chapters of Mere Christianity be CS Lewis if you want an example of that line of argument.     
Given that children have that kind of brain, it’s almost inevitable that they will pick up some false information along with the true information. And once that false information has been picked up and believed, there’s no reason it can’t be passed on to the next generation and therefore the next and the next, and so what you would expect to find, and do find, is that beliefs like “sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon” are passed down from generation to generation. The beliefs themselves are always different in different areas, as you would also expect. It is entirely arbitrary what that information is, the point is you believe it because you’ve been told it by strong authority, and you pass it onto your children with equally strong authority, and so on
The truth is it is not "entirely arbitrary." That is a false dichotomy. That is either religions must be 100% in agreement or they are entirely arbitrary. They have a lot on common but some very important differences as well. There are a few outliers but most have commands like: Do not lie. Do not kill. Honor you father and mother. Do not steal. We have even seen some of the outliers disappear. Polytheistic religions are almost gone. 

So there seems to be a convergence of religious ideas and that convergence seems to be growing over time. That is not the data you would expect of the content of the religion was entirely arbitrary. It is more what you would expect if people were trying to discern some truth and experiencing errors. That is to say the evidence from multiple religions fits better theism better than atheism. It is more consistent with there being some truth out there then religion being a totally irrational exercise. 


  1. There are many things that humans have as a result of our evolution that are no longer needed. People’s bodies hold on to every calorie that we eat because the body doesn't know when it may eat again. It does this even when people are overweight. Men and women’s desire to procreate is Darwinian, of course even though the church would say that it’s our inner evil. We feel this even when we don’t want to have children, and we have those thoughts even when we may be married or we know its not a decision we want to make. Just because we still have these traits doesn't mean they are still useful. You may not want to be bald but do you still have your wisdom teeth, I bet you don't!!!

    1. Sure, still we need to figure out what to do with all these features evolution left us. If evolution is really pointless then the answer does not matter because nothing matters. Yet atheists seem to feel it matters. That somehow atheism is seen as progress. Even if it is true, why does truth matter? If religion is comfortable then isn't that enough? In the atheist worldview that is the best we can do, a little comfort before we die.

  2. As far as why get rid of religion? Religion is the most divisive force in the world today, and because of it there are people all over the world that want to kill you and me today. Sure politics matter but the elephant in the room is that people are willing to do it because they are motivated by what they think is the highest ideal. Why do they believe this, they have faith, the act of non-thinking. Sure there is some good to the whole thing but it’s not in the closed minded “I’m right your wrong” that it brings. You are right there is a convergence. The common ground is the community it builds, in people feeling like their life has a meaning. The positive that any religion brings to someone’s life aren’t dependent on the specifics of that one religion. And while the outliers are shrinking as you said if the important differences were what really what mattered then all religions wouldn’t have similar success in perpetuating themselves would they ( I am talking mainly about the two most at odds Christianity and Islam)? I guess what I am trying to say is that when you get right down to it most people are actually moderates. People know that the bible was written in a time that is now outdated. They use scripture when they see it applicable in their life. They go to church they enjoy community. All of those things are great. Those are the things shared by religion and those are the reasons it perpetuates. Even still that doesn’t mean there’s any truth to it, the explanation with moths and children perfectly outlined why people cling to it, because they are taught it by their parents!! Are we forgetting that regions that are Christian stay Christian and Muslim stay Muslim. Do you think this is a coincidence? Sure kids make up their minds when they get older, but obviously you can’t deny that upbringing plays a huge role? Think about it this way, take 1000 babies and raise them in Muslim homes, then take 1000 mid 20s Christians and teach them all about Islam. How many from each group do you think would be Muslim when they are 30? Would you be any more likely to believe in Mohammed as you would hob goblins, Zeus, or the Easter bunny? Of course not, and neither would they to your god. Doesn’t that make you wonder? The point is most peoples happiness and their belief structure doesn’t actually depend whether the bible or the Koran is true. It only is for the extremists. And so belief in god isn’t bad its blind faith that perpetuates ancient mores and superstations. It actually slows the progress of society. Just like it did with slavery and women’s rights and how it is right now on homosexuality.

    1. "Religion is the most divisive force in the world today"

      Why should we believe that? We can fight over lots of things. Politics, money, sex, etc.

      "because of it there are people all over the world that want to kill you and me today"

      Who? I don't know of anyone who wants to kill me. Some seem to want to kill their neighbors and use religious rhetoric to justify it. I am not convinced they would all be peaceful law abiding citizens if we could just make them atheists.

      "Sure politics matter but the elephant in the room is that people are willing to do it because they are motivated by what they think is the highest ideal. "

      OK, so they kill for the highest ideal. If you eliminate that then something else becomes the highest ideal. Then they kill for that. That does not seem to be a winning strategy.

      What you need is for their highest ideal to be inconsistent with killing. That is the scenario that leads to peace. Atheism is not inconsistent with anything, except God. It is certainly not inconsistent with murder, think Nazis communists, etc.

    2. "The positive that any religion brings to someone’s life aren’t dependent on the specifics of that one religion"

      Sure they are. Is it a coincidence that all the recent killing is associated with Islam. Christianity had some issues with violence in the 16th and 17 centuries but it is pretty much over now. It does matter what you believe. The way to fix bad religion is with right religion.

      "Sure kids make up their minds when they get older, but obviously you can’t deny that upbringing plays a huge role?"

      Yes upbringing is important. Less so than it used to be. People today are much more aware of other religions and non-religious lifestyles. We need to teach people to ask hard questions of their faith. They need to ask hard questions of atheism to.

      At the end of the day we want freedom and truth. We want every parent to be free to teach their religion to their children. We want children to be free to decide. Then we want as many people as possible to arrive at the truth.

      The fact that the discernment process is not optimal does not somehow prove atheism. I was raised Calvinist and converted to Catholicism. So I did not just accept my parents religion. Yet I hope my kids remain Catholic. The fact that their parents are Catholic should not be a reason to reject it. If there is a better view then go there. I don't think there is or I would have done so already. Still, they are free.

  3. Of course people feel guilt it’s how they rationalize it that is dependent on upbringing.

  4. 1. Racial slavery or otherwise if the bible was from god it would never contain anything even resembling an endorsement of slavery.
    2. I can never believe that god would ever use clearly immoral means to deal with mankind, even if as you say "times were different"
    3. I can never believe that god is a sexist.
    4. I cant simply take the fact that people believed in Jesus and followed his teachings as a point that he is the son of god. His teachings were worth while. And maybe he was charismatic. It certainly doesn't mean he is the son of god, and while I would like to believe that I cant help but ask myself why I wouldn't subscribe to teachings of other religions that claim they know the true will of god. If as you pointed out that all religions do have merit and those merits are what makes them ubiquitous throughout culture, then that means the specific differences aren't the points that matter. You cant have the argument both ways. Believe in only my religion, yet all religions are great and that's why you should believe in my religion.
    5. If god created me then he made me analytical. He made me question things and use my reasoning. My reasoning precludes me from believing any corrupt institutionalized religion that I have seen so far.

    That's all I have to say.

    1. 1. Why? Why is it so obvious slavery is wrong? If you were reforming a savage people would you start with slavery instead of murder or rape?

      Does the bible really endorse slavery? Jesus explicitly said Moses regulated divorce not because it was OK but because human hearts were to hard to accept marriage as forever. That did not come until Malachi. If God could do that with divorce then why not slavery?

      2. Why not? The bible explicitly said that God took the act of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery and used it for good. Is that kind of thing out of bounds for God? Who are you to say?

      3. He isn't. Not sure why it would be bad if He was. He created animals and humans with different dignity. Both men and women were created in the image of God and have equal dignity. That does not make them the same. Women can't become priests, for example. Equal but different.

      4. I do think people in the first century knew the difference between a charismatic man and the Son of God. Lots of people had very good teachings back then. Nobody thought Aristotle or Socrates was the Son of God. Jesus would have to do more than just say a few worth while things to make people declare Him divine.

      What would you expect if Catholicism was true? What would the religious landscape look like? You would expect Catholicism to have an obvious place across the globe and across history. Then you would expect a lot of imitations. If the devil is real there is no way he is not going to create a bunch of fake version of Christ's church.

      5. We all use reason. It has always been a strength of mine. Yet you have not shown me any reason why God could not use the church as it is. Yes there are corrupt people inside. Still God's word and God's sacraments seem to have survived intact. Why could that not be the way God chose to preserve the gospel delivered by Jesus?

      "That's all I have to say."

      Thanks so much for the thoughts. All the best to you.