Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is There a 'Religion Gene'

One of the great questions for humanity, one which reaches to the center of what makes humans the sort of creatures they are (whether one takes them to be rational animals, spiritual animals, or determinalistic animals) is why we contemplate religious questions.

Anselm's Ontological Argument is perhaps the classic Christian attempt to address this question, stating essentially that God is that thing which is the greatest and most perfect thing imaginable, and since existing is more perfect than being imaginary, God must therefor by definition exist.

In apologetics terms, many authors talk about how the "God-shaped hole" in the human heart is a key piece of evidence that we are creatures who yearn for our creator.

Nor is this question strictly of interest to theists. One of the great questions for strict materialists is: If there is no such thing as a God or a spiritual realm, why does nearly everyone think there is? Those with an interest in finding evolutinary explanations for such things, such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, have put a fair amount of work into coming up with explanation as to how developing a religious sense would have been biologically advantageous (even if philosophically erronius) for early humans. In this materialist conception, there must be some sort of 'religion gene' which appeared at some point in early human history and resulted in better survival among humans with a religious sense than without.

Now, I'll admit to having little truck with anything that smacks of evolutionary psychology, but there's something rather deeper that strikes me as odd about the idea of a 'religion gene'. It is, I think, the implicit assumption that if one could somehow come up with some sort of apparently biological explanation for why people are able to think about religiousmatters, that this would somehow rule out the possibility that religion is false. Religions are systems of truth claims. To be Catholic is to endorse the claim that certain things are true. To be Bhuddist is to endorse the claim that certain other, contradictory, things are true. However, the claims themselves must have a truth or falsehood separate from anyone's ability to evaluate them or be interested in them.

Once upon a time (when the ancestors of human beings were not yet imbued with reason) there was no creature on the Earth capable of understanding mathematics. However, the fact that no one was capable of grasping what a sphere was or how addition worked in no way detracted from the truth of mathematics. Nor would it disprove the truth of mathematics if a "math gene" or "abstract thought gene" were responsible for making humans capable of grasping mathematical realities. In this sense, the human discovery of mathematics (whether one chooses to think in terms of a 'math gene' which benefited humans' survival or in terms of humanity being imbued with reason and thus able to contemplate the world) thus fits in a very Platonic mode, in that it involves the discovery by the mind of a reality deeper than the physical instantiations of mathematical concepts.

Now, if one has already concluded that there is no God, the 'religion gene' idea perhaps provides some insight into why most humans have always believed in some sort of supernatural level of existence. But I can't see that the idea in any sense disproves the existence of the supernatural -- which is what many of its supporters seem to believe it does. No more, at any rate, than the exitence of a 'math gene' would prove that numbers don't exist.

If there is such a thing, and I must say that I find the idea of looking for genetic origins for thought rather odd and unhelpful, its existence doesn't speak to whether there is or is not a God, merely how it is that humans came to ask the question. The question of God's existence is a question about reality and thus independant of whether we ask ourselves the question or not.

11 comments:

cincy bill said...

good thinking

John Farrell said...

What's interesting is--at least in Dawkins's case, I dunno about Dennett--they don't keep up on the very science they champion...at least to the degree that, most geneticists would tell you that the "one gene for one characteristic or trait" generalization is false. And that's for physical traits, not just the more elusive ones having to do with our consciousness and mental processes.

Steve Jones goes into this fallacy in more detail in his excellent book Darwin's Ghosts.

Anonymous said...

There is more to physical human nature than just "genes," but the popular, superficial understanding of biology and evolution is so impressed with genetics that it stops there in explaining said nature. It is simple enough to correct this problem by reading "genes" as shorthand for "physical human nature." So let's do so in order to move on to more interesting matters.

I believe the evidence for a religious component in our human nature, as it has evolved, is extremely important. It means that religious practice is just as much a part of our human identity as, say, language. If religion is an inherent part of who we are, then attempts to abolish religion from human life are horribly misguided. Ultimately, such attempts must either fail or turn us into something other than human.

But, of course, turning us into something other than human is a big part of the modern agenda. Many secularists are not especially attached to our humanity, but are eager to transcend it. Some speak of a "post-biological," or even "post-human," future. (Some even speak of "evolving" to a "higher level," but this is an idiosyncratic reference to evolution that has nothing to do with biology or natural selection.) The whole notion of transcending our human nature is, of course, pure Gnosticism, even if it is entirely secular.

As always, Gnostic religion is opposed by Incarnational religion. For Christians, our humanity is not something to outgrow and discard, but something to fulfill, perfect, and glorify, by the grace of God. Gnosticism relies on the false - yet seemingly obvious - premise that divinity and humanity are mutually exclusive and, moreover, mutually antagonistic. For the Gnostic, in order to become more divine one must become less human. But we look to the example of Christ, who was fully human and fully divine. In him, we see that it is only by fulfilling our God-given human nature that we can hope to become divine.

Secularists, who upon finding a natural explanation for a phenomenon automatically dismiss the reality of the supernatural, partake of this dualistic Gnostic error. And Christians who feel obligated to reject natural explanations in order to defend the supernatural make the same error. But an orthodox Christian should never be surprised to find a natural, physical explanation for phenomena that coincide with the supernatural, spiritual reality we believe in. In fact, if you accept that the fullness of divinity dwelt in the fully human Christ, you would expect nothing less.

Roland

Darwin said...

Very good point, Roland.

I should clarify, in my poo-pooing of 'evolutionary psychology' I wasn't so much trying to discount any physical/biological origin to human faculties such as language, abstract reasoning, spirituality, etc. (Though I'd hesitate to thing of these as "only" physical, I could well imagine that there is a physical side to these faculties which arose at a specific point in evolutionary history.)

However, it seems to me that much of what flies under the banner evolutionary psychology really does fall into the "if I can tell a story about it I've explained it" line of work. And also I think that much of 'evolutionary psychology' involves an assumed determinism which I find intellectually unacceptable.

BTW, Razib of Gene Expression (though an atheist) actually had some similar criticisms of Dawkins to the ones you make above, in re religion being a part of humanity unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Razib said...

What's interesting is--at least in Dawkins's case, I dunno about Dennett--they don't keep up on the very science they champion...at least to the degree that, most geneticists would tell you that the "one gene for one characteristic or trait" generalization is false. And that's for physical traits, not just the more elusive ones having to do with our consciousness and mental processes.

have you read the god delusion? dawkins knows the science, and he doesn't hold to go a 'god gene' at all. nevertheless, sometimes he speaks as if he does believe in a god gene though he clearly is aware of the sophisticated naturalistic cognitive anthropological literature in this area. i don't know whether that dams or rescues him. my own attitude is that it's a wash because at least he's not as ignorant of religion as i'd assumed him to be for someoen who speaks of it.

second, in regards to darwin's primary thrust, i would point to too issues

a) neither dennett or dawkins hold to the 'god gene' hypothesis, whose primary proponent is dean hamer, who seems to be more of a self-promoter than a scientist. his 'god gene' is actually more like a 'mysticism gene' in any case. supernatural belief as a natural phenomenon probably emerges out of a host of genetic and biosocial biases.

b) supernatural belief is fundamentally separable from religion in a more philosophical/doctrinal sense such as roman catholicism or buddhism. one can be superstitious and not a member of a religion (ask the chinese), and one can be religious and not superstitious (ask the jesuits).

c) some of the scientists who study religion from a naturalistic perspective are themselves theists. cognitive psychologist justin l. barrett is a calvinist christian who works for the young life evangelical protestant organization, but he also publishes work on the natural phenomenon of religiosity. yes, some atheists want to discover the natural roots of religion to 'disprove' them, but others, such as myself, are curious as to a phenomenon which we have no intuitive grasp of.

Kip said...

There's another side to this too. Maybe spiritual experience is indeed a product of our physical makeup (our 'genes'), but maybe it is not simply an ecstatic delusion (the premise of the materialist) but a sublime mode of perception.

It certainly feels that way from the inside...

Roland said...

Kip's comment reminds me of an article on this subject in Time or Newsweek a couple of years ago. It summarized research showing what happens in the brain when an experienced practitioner of prayer or meditation engaged in said practice. It then gave two interpretations. Some asserted that this research showed the phenomenon was all in the mind.

Those who disagreed argued by analogy to vision. When one sees something, it stimulates a response in the brain the brain. With the appropriate scientific instruments, we can measure this response. But we would not conclude that our perception of seeing is just a hallucination - that it's all in the brain. It is, rather, a physical response to a real, external stimulus. Our senses evolved to facilitate our perception of the world around us. Similarly, the perception of a spiritual reality that occurs in prayer and meditation might be the operation of a real sense reacting to a real stimulus.

qetzal said...

Roland wrote:

"I believe the evidence for a religious component in our human nature, as it has evolved, is extremely important. It means that religious practice is just as much a part of our human identity as, say, language. If religion is an inherent part of who we are, then attempts to abolish religion from human life are horribly misguided. Ultimately, such attempts must either fail or turn us into something other than human."

I disagree, for several reasons.

First, what does this say about non-religious people? Are they not human?

Second, one could argue that the potential for murder, rape, war, etc., are also part of our human identity. Does it therefore follow that attempts to abolish war are horribly misguided? Do such attempts risk turning us into something other than human? I don't think so.

I'm not arguing that religion is at all equivalent to war, murder, or rape, mind you. I'm just saying that you can't conclude that religiousness is good merely because so many people are religious.

Kip said...

qetzal,

OK, some silly questions. As the dumbest of the Christians here I'll have crack at answering them.

1) The irreligious. How absurd, of course the irreligious are human. However they are humans who have sadly suppressed the better part of their nature, as humans are often wont to do.

2) Exactly wrong. Rape, murder etc are not apart of our *human* nature. They come from the beast within, the physical animal into which spiritual Man was birthed. As per above, they arise when Man either suppresses his humanity, or in moments of weakness (eg. fear or mental sickness) when the Beast is able to overpower the Man.

Darwin said...

Second, one could argue that the potential for murder, rape, war, etc., are also part of our human identity. Does it therefore follow that attempts to abolish war are horribly misguided? Do such attempts risk turning us into something other than human? I don't think so.

Without going as far as answering the question of "ought", I would at least say that while it's clearly a moral good for any individual human to avoid these sins, it's also profoundly unrealistic for anyone to announce a grand program to abolish war, rape, murder etc.

While the desire to commit such acts is certainly not what makes us human, it seems to me impossible to fundamentally change human nature in such a way that we would no longer have wars, etc. So at the most basic level, I actualy would find the aim of abolishing war about as abstracted from human nature as the aim of abolishing religion.

Patrick said...

Why do Dawkins, et al, imagine that an evolutionary basis for religious belief would be a disproof of God's existence?

Because, by and large, we've abandoned arguing about the content of beliefs in general, in favor of arguing about why certain people hold them. It's rather a frustrating modern or postmodern trait- the idea that if you have a cause for a person's belief, that belief becomes just a psychological artefact, regardless of what it states. As JPII pointed out in Veritatis Splendor, we've lost faith in reason itself.