Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Darwin’s God
Sorry - I seem to be blogging my way through the Sunday paper this morning, but there's another good article in the Sunday Magazine section of the NYT, regarding a debate within scientific circles of the true source of religion in human beings.

Neo-atheistic hard liners like Richard Dawkins, promote the idea that religion is a byproduct of a useless (he would argue dangerous) "evolutionary accident". I recently finished his latest book, "The God Delusion", and while he gets his points across, he often does so with an almost evangelical sneer of anger towards anyone who could possibly believe in anything other than hard science that I found a little too arrogant at times.

Anthropologist Scott Atran (a Baltimore native!), on the other hand, takes a truly Darwinian approach that I find compelling.
"...he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?"

So, similar to what happened in evolutionary science with the origin of species, is an interesting split within scientific and anthropologic circles as to the true origins of religion and religious beliefs. What had once been quite separate fields - the oil and water of belief systems - science versus religion, now has religion itself integrated as a scientific field of study. God is now the subject of legitimate, serious, scientific inquiry.
These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

Since a belief in the supernatural, prayer, deities, and an afterlife are pervasive in virtually all cultures since the dawn of man, it's certainly a scientific question worth answering - don't you think? Regardless of your own belief system, unraveling the mysteries of religion shouldn't be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity for answers. Yet, no matter how much science can explain, the tragedy of human evolution may be that we are hard wired to value spiritualism more than rationalism.
posted by Broadsheet @ 8:59 AM  
3 Editorial Opinions:
  • At March 04, 2007, Blogger jwer said…

    First, read this.

    ...and then tell me how one can talk about a foolish (yet comforting) set of beliefs without sounding arrogant?

    Arrogance is a matter of opinion; if I have never believed in god or anything magical, I am perfectly within my rights to talk frankly of how useless is religious belief, especially if I am speaking solely from the framework that religion is factually insupportable.

    I just finished reading yon book as well, and I've read a number of reviews (including more than one that start with "I haven't read the book, but...") and almost all of them take Dawkins to task for things he never did or said; why attack him for lacking the theological background of a veteran priest when his point is that god doesn't exist? He does actually address the comfort/consolation factor of religion quite well, along with that of childhood imaginary friends.

    I fail to see why Dawkins or any other atheist should feel the need to coddle religious nitwits when those same nitwits would burn him at the stake if they had their druthers.

    I am not a kneejerk hater of "Political Correctness", although I do violently dislike a number of examples that are routinely trotted out. I do think that this idea that private citizens should have to kowtow to other people's idiotic and exclusionary beliefs, particularly when writing about how incorrect those beliefs are, is absurd.

  • At March 04, 2007, Blogger Broadsheet said…

    jwer: Good article. Religion as a by product of OCD. Yet another angle to consider. I'm not sure why you're getting all defensive - I agree with Dawkins. I just think he can make the same points without being a jerk. It's about tone, not content. Same goes for right wing holy roller fundamentalists. It's fine to hold true to an opinion - (especially in Dawkin's case when it's based on scientific fact and rational findings), but tolerance and compassion for other's belief systems, no matter how egregiously wrong you might know them to be, isn't a religious quality, it's an ethical one.

  • At March 04, 2007, Blogger jwer said…

    I'm not getting defensive, I'm disagreeing.

    I don't think he's being a jerk, and I'm tired of his being criticized, even by people who ostensibly agree with him, for very reasonably pointing out that religion is flawed at its core.

    If there's something specific that you thought was arrogant, talk about that directly. But saying that "he could be less arrogant" without elaborating doesn't really do anything to establish that you're making a point at all.

    And yes, people tell me not to be so arrogant about this particular issue as well, which is why I know whereof I speak.

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