Friday, November 25, 2022

Evolution and the Persistence of Religion

Many thinkers apparently believe that there is a contradiction of sorts between the theory that human beings evolved from more primitive organisms on the one hand, and the persistence of religion throughout human history on the other. If religion is not true, it is surmised, then how is it that religion has thrived in all eras of human history to such a fervent degree? Put another way: if human beings evolved and continue to flourish on earth through the survival of the fittest, how is it that religion has survived right alongside unless religion is true?

(Of course, here we apparently need to set aside the fact that there are many competing religions, some monotheistic, others polytheistic, and others that are not theistic in any ordinary sense.) 

Curiously, some thinkers believe there is a need to reconcile the fact that religion is so pervasive throughout the history of humanity with the premise that human beings as a species evolved from non-human ancestors. 

In an excerpt from a recent podcast, popular commentator Dinesh D’Souza states that “some evolutionary biologists are really baffled by the adaptive significance of religion.” Given the fact that so few thinkers these days guide their intellect by the norms of rational philosophy, I have no doubt this is true. D’Souza cites the view, which he attributes to Richard Dawkins, that “maybe religion serves the purpose of what he calls wishful thinking,” to wit, the argument
that religion has persisted over the centuries and [in] so many different cultures because people like to believe things that aren’t true and this gives them a certain type of psychological comfort.
Here I think D’Souza may not be putting the point as charitably as he could. I don’t think it’s so much that people “like to believe things that aren’t true,” but rather that they have adopted beliefs which they have not examined very critically, with them some beliefs which are in fact not true, and yet they resist reconsidering them soberly and in fact invest themselves in the hope that they are true. I am reminded of Christian apologist Mike Licona who said of Jesus’s resurrection, “I want it to be true” (see here). The New Testament’s own definition of ‘faith’ in Hebrews 11:1 explicitly aligns faith with hope. This is no accident. 

Nevertheless, D’Souza replies to this, saying “this explanation… makes no evolutionary sense… because evolution punishes beliefs that are ridiculously untrue,” such as those that one would hold as a result of the comfort they find in wishful thinking. D’Souza challenges this view by quoting Steven Pinker (see here):
A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.
“In other words,” says D’Souza,
what Pinker is saying is that, yeah, if you have people who like to believe things because they wish they were true – hey, I’m really cold, but you know, I wish I was warm and that’s somehow gonna make me feel better – he goes no, it doesn’t make you feel better. In fact, it gives you the illusion that you don’t have to go find a warmer place and so you’re more likely to freeze because you have this wrong belief that your imagination can kind of create warmth.
Thus, false beliefs accepted on the basis of wishful thinking, it is thereby inferred, would actually lead to the demise of the species, which is of course not what we find in the world today with some eight or so billion people on the planet. Apparently D’Souza takes this as some kind of confirmation that his religious beliefs are true, for otherwise the evolutionary model would have ensured that religion died out long ago. Or, alternatively, it may be that the persistence of religion is being treated as evidence that the evolutionary paradigm is in fact not true.

Of course, the objection which D’Souza cites is obvious: believing that a prowling lion is just a harmless rabbit would likely preclude evasive action and you consequently become its dinner, and your beliefs die with you; such a belief has no survival value and thus it cannot be transmitted to your offspring. This of course assumes a lot of variables of course which may not in fact apply. For instance, suppose a person believes that he’s nothing more than a tasteless, unappetizing rock; he never encounters a prowling lion, and thus lives to propagate such a belief to his offspring. If D’Souza is trying to mount an argument against the evolutionary paradigm, the objection which he cites actually allows for the evolutionary paradigm a success factor which it pretends to have squelched. So while the objection may have its strengths, its success as a challenge to evolution as such depends on incidental conditions which may or may not obtain from case to case.

But there are some critical distinctions about the nature of religious belief which are ignored in such contrived scenarios. While religion does in fact foster a predisposition towards wishful thinking (apologist John Frame admits on p. 37 of his book Apologetics to the Glory of God that “a person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief”), one of the distinguishing factors of religious belief is that its content is not testable in the kind of concrete situations which D’Souza et al. cite as undermining examples. Religious beliefs posture as having to do with truths which “transcend” the immediacy of any particular individual’s experience, truths which allegedly obtain regardless of what happens moment by moment in one’s life. This ensures that the alleged truths of a religion do not rest or depend on what one might happen to observe in the real world, which effectively prevents them from coming into contact with the concretes of daily life and thus insulates them from critical scrutiny. It also ensures that such beliefs are accessible to human beings regardless of their specific circumstances and experiences.

In contrast to D’Souza’s examples, then, the situation is more like this: One may be shivering in the cold and yet still believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and he may come face to face with a hungry tiger and yet still believe that his sins have been forgiven by a supernatural agent. On the surface level, the believer senses no conflict between the concrete situation he finds himself in and the beliefs which he resists submitting to rational inquiry. Meanwhile, nature still takes its course: we are still biological organisms, we still face the alternative between life and death, and we still need to act in order to continue living. So the notion that the theory of evolution is somehow incompatible with the persistence of religion throughout human history has very little going for it.

The implications for this notion only get worse the deeper we examine the matter. The root issue here is to explain the persistence of false beliefs in spite of one’s experience. It is important to consider man’s distinctive form of consciousness, specifically his capacity to conceptualize. While there are no doubt many factors to consider in explaining why religious beliefs persist so stubbornly, there are three functions of human consciousness made possible by the capacity to conceptualize that I think are particularly responsible for the persistence of religion. These are the capacity to believe, the capacity to compartmentalize, and the capacity to imagine.

Regardless of the prehistoric conditions and events by which human beings as a species may have evolved, it is an incontestable fact that human beings have the capacity to believe - i.e., to accept ideational content as at least probably true, and with that the capacity to believe indiscriminately – i.e., to accept ideational content as true even when it is not true. We are fallible, and this means that our capacity to conceptualize brings with it our need for reason. It can be said that while evolution gave us the capacity for knowledge, it does not give us the knowledge we need in order to live or even the knowledge we need to validate knowledge; we need to discover and validate all of our knowledge through our own conscious efforts. Likewise, while evolution has given us the capacity for the conceptual level of consciousness, it does not automatically supply that philosophy which is proper to our needs as human beings. There’s no contradiction between the conclusion that human beings evolved from more primitive biological ancestors on the one hand and, on the other, the recognition that we need to discover and work out those philosophical principles most suited to our life needs. A random set of beliefs will not satisfy this specifically human need for philosophical principles, and yet human beings have demonstrated a remarkable ability to reproduce in spite of their ignorance of philosophical principles. After all, as many hapless high-schoolers have unfortunately discovered, lacking a rational understanding of reality, life and the trajectory of human history does not prevent the onset of puberty, sexual arousal, insemination, conception and successful pregnancy. The persistence of human history owes more to biological causation than many thinkers may be inclined to give it credit.

Nothing in reality is going to function automatically to prevent a thinker from believing something that is not true. This is a fundamental reason why we need rational philosophy and with it, a reliable understanding of epistemology – the science which teaches us how the human mind discovers, acquires and validates knowledge. Moreover, there is nothing in reality which guarantees that any human thinker is (a) going to discover those epistemological principles which secure his mind from error and (b) apply those principles consistently so as to steer clear of any and all error. Add to this the real possibility that for every fact there may be any number of ways to get it wrong, we may sometimes marvel that we get anything right. Many well-educated adults, for instance, seem to believe that induction is rationally indefensible (presumably that assessment applies to all instances of inductive reasoning), and yet many of them no doubt lead relatively prosperous lives.

Additionally, it is possible to accept untrue content which nevertheless does not impact an individual’s actions or decision-making. One may believe, for example, that everyone on the Hindenburg perished when it burst into flames, and yet this belief has no bearing on whether or not he can find his way back home through the streets of his neighborhood at night; he still makes the correct turns and takes the correct streets on his trip home in spite of this false belief. Not every belief one holds factors into every choice he makes. It is therefore not impossible or even unlikely for many beliefs to avoid conflict with one’s immediate experience. The need to choose between making a left turn and going over a cliff does not call into question one’s beliefs about the outcome of the Hindenburg disaster. Consequently, the number of errant beliefs which may remain unchallenged and undetected in the sum of one’s ideational content is, as Plantinga might put it, “inscrutable.”

This last point easily segues our attention to the human mind’s ability to compartmentalize. This article from Psychology Today defines ‘compartmentalization’ as “a defense mechanism in which people mentally separate conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences to avoid the discomfort of contradiction.” There may be truth to the argument that our capacity to compartmentalize has its basis in our evolution. Our primitive ancestors, for example, had to push aside any fears they may have had as they went out to hunt for food. Ancient seafarers had to ignore their fears as they set sail for destinations beyond the horizon. Then again, fears can be conquered by certain motives and goals, e.g., a hungry stomach or the desire for riches and glory.

Nevertheless, as with any human capacity, the ability to compartmentalize can be abused and misused. Many adults are reluctant to question – much less challenge - the beliefs they adopted in childhood. And yet, that some of those beliefs are out of sync with the reality they observe as adults is hard to deny. Rather than confront the resulting conflict and resolve it (which, it may be rightly sensed, would require abandoning a lifelong belief), a thinker may choose instead to shelter the questionable belief behind an impenetrable bulwark which shields it from clashing with new experiences and knowledge and numbs the thinker’s awareness of any problem. This is the opposite of the Objectivist goal of rational integration. All too often, thinkers protect questionable beliefs which they have accepted from being challenged by other beliefs, observations, insights, discoveries, or experiences. By erecting a wall of separation between such beliefs and anything which might expose their falsehood, one can navigate life’s challenges while preserving attachment to beliefs of questionable value. But not entirely without cost.

I’m often amazed by believers’ ability to consider themselves Christians on the one hand while completely avoiding the Christian call to evangelize. Christians must believe that the New Testament stories are all true, including Jesus’ command to “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15), and yet nothing in reality is going to force them to do this. And many never seem to get around to it. Compartmentalization is the means by which believers suppress the conflict between their professed beliefs and their own apathy to some aspect of those beliefs’ very content. This is just one example. One can cite the inefficacy of prayer, the absence of miracles, the failure of “laying on of hands,” the inability to move mountains by mere commands, the failure of prophecy, etc. Apologists spend great amounts of energy concocting explanations for why their beliefs fail to pan out, and by doing so they are trying to erect and strengthen walls of compartmentalization. To anyone truly paying attention, their defenses are typically not very convincing.

I’ve known many people throughout my lifetime who claimed to be Christians and yet never once witnessed to me. I’m sure if asked, they’d have some kind of explanation – albeit they’d likely be caught off guard. But this is something I’ve tested a number of times: a colleague or acquaintance makes passing reference in conversation to something he did or heard in church, and I might ask which church that is or how long he’s been attending it, thereby ensuring they have opportunity to share the good news. But beyond that it remains an idle triviality, as incidental as going to a hardware store or making an appointment with his dentist. The aspect of the religion’s teachings are themselves kept safely out of view, just as apologists themselves typically never initiate discussions on the nature of faith in debate.

But in spite of these maneuvers to suppress conflict, believers can still imagine that their religious beliefs are nevertheless all true. Which is the third human capacity that is critical to the persistence of religion. Virtually all human beings, even from a very young age, have the capacity to imagine. In fact, what’s noteworthy here is how effortlessly one may go from not imagining to imagining without ever consciously realizing it. There is no “signpost,” as Rod Serling would call it, warning us that we have departed from objective fact and into the realm of the imaginary as we’re speeding along in our minds. It is thus entirely possible to be imagining without realizing it. I’d even go a step further and argue that it takes some self-discipline to train oneself to acknowledge to himself when he has engaged his imagination so that awareness of this distinction becomes more habitual.

Religion lures the mind not only to imagine things, but to treat what one imagines as real things. In Christianity for example, adherents imagine Yahweh, Jesus, angels, demons, Satan, heaven and hell, and they do their level best to convince themselves that these things they imagine actually exist. Often this requires continuous positive reinforcement, and even then powerful doubts may still persist (see for instance here). And naturally, contact between these imagined things and reality will inevitably be imagined to have taken place in the past. The past did happen, but what actually happened might as well be what the believer imagines to have happened.

All be told, it is easy to imagine what happened before some indefinite point in time. Star Wars famously opens with the tagline “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” which seductively invites the viewer’s imagination to depart earth and establish an orbit around an entire constellation of fictions. The book of Genesis does essentially the same thing when it opens with the words, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Here the reader is similarly beckoned to enter into the realm of imagination, a fictional realm where the mind is allowed to embellish details at will, emphasize some aspects over others according to one’s own values, and draw conclusions from depictions filtered through one’s own prejudices.

Given these points, is it any wonder that the world’s “great religions” encapsulate their dogma to one degree or another in narrative form? A narrative provides the mind with imagery which can be visualized in the imagination and easily retained in memory. Allegories not only provide the memory something easy to recall, they also allow the believer to personalize elements of the narrative, thereby making them as intimately familiar as possible. The imagery of fiction lends itself to mental concretization, which is the closest that the imaginary can come to seeming real in one’s mind. Imagery allows a reader to experience the sensations and emotions of a text, which makes it possible for readers to invest themselves personally in the narrative, as though they were observing the story firsthand, thereby giving a foothold for deep emotional connection. To help sustain belief, the fact that the narrative is something one reads serves to create the illusion that the things and events depicted in the imagery have their basis outside the mind, as though it were based in objective fact. Readers of the narrative did not compose the narrative, so the reader’s experience is akin to that of an observer – witnessing the narrative’s events as though they were unfolding in reality, involved in the story’s conflict and committed to seeing it through to resolution. If a reader is not aware that he is imagining, he may lose sight of the fact that the experience he’s having is a response to something that is in fact fictional and not real. There is no doubt that religion owes not only its ease of assimilation by individual adherents, but also its persistence across cultures and history, to the narrative form in which it is preserved, transmitted and consumed. (See also The Storybook Worldview.)

Other factors also come into play, such as trust in what others tell us, acceptance of pronouncements from authority figures, inability to discern in areas outside one’s expertise, and other expressions of intellectual default. Ayn Rand observed in her novel Atlas Shrugged that “faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others.” Such faith – as in uncritical acceptance – is to be expected in childhood. As one matures toward adulthood, however, the ideal is to shed the habit of uncritical acceptance and develop critical thinking skills, beginning with the elementary principles of rational philosophy, so that eventually he will think with his own mind. I’m doubtful that many will ever undertake this task as it will likely require inestimable effort to undo bad mental habits and define new ones, and even limit one’s dependence on unexamined mental habits where deliberate focus is required. One would need to be convinced that the reward for such an endeavor is worth the effort it incurs. Why not just watch TV instead?

Now going back to D’Souza’s comments, we may ask: why doesn’t wishing to be warm when one is cold, make one warm? Why doesn’t wishing have the power to make anything come to pass? Why does D’Souza so casually characterize the “belief that your imagination can kind of create warmth” as a “wrong belief”? Two questions I have here are:
What metaphysical orientation between consciousness and its objects does D’Souza’s dismissal of wishing and imagination as creative forces assume? and 
Is the metaphysical orientation that his dismissal assumes at all compatible with the metaphysics of supernaturalism that is central to religion?
The answer to the first question is: the primacy of existence. D’Souza knows implicitly what we all know implicitly, and that is that wishing doesn’t make it so, that imagining something doesn’t make it real, that consciousness does not hold metaphysical primacy over reality. The task of consciousness is to perceive and identify the objects of our awareness, not to create and/or manipulate them according to our will. D’Souza recognizes this fact at such a fundamental level that he likely doesn’t see the point of calling it out explicitly, even though it lies at the root of his dismissal of the notions in question. And though he clearly takes the primacy of existence for granted, he has yet to identify it in the form of an explicit principle and grasp its philosophical significance. “Primacy of… what?” we might hear him say. He’s not alone in this by any means.

In response to the second question above, the answer is: No, the metaphysical orientation according to which D’Souza dismisses wishing and imagination as creative forces, is not at all compatible with the metaphysics of supernaturalism that is so central to religion. This is because the primacy of existence, which D’Souza assumes when dismissing wishing and imagination as creative forces, is diametrically contrary to the primacy of consciousness, which is the metaphysical orientation between consciousness and its objects which supernaturalism assumes. According to supernaturalism, conscious activity holds the upper hand over reality, whether it’s by means of wishing, commanding, or simply thinking. According to the Christian bible, for example, wishing caused the universe to come into being, water was commanded into wine, Jesus was raised from the dead by divine fiat, and Jesus himself tells readers that they can move mountains if they have enough faith – i.e., if they wish hard enough. Peter failed to stay afloat when attempting to walk on unfrozen water essentially because he began to doubt the power of wishing. The assumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics is the distinguishing attribute of the supernatural view of the world, a view which attributes “ultimate causation” to conscious agents which are available to the human mind only by means of imagination. The content of supernaturalism as well as the “means” by which believers “know” supernatural agencies are both premised on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics: a supernatural being’s wishes created everything in reality and control all their actions, and the believer “knows” this by means of wishful imagination. It is because of this combined, double application of the primacy of consciousness in both metaphysics and epistemology, that believers sense a kind of internal consistency to their beliefs. Meanwhile, they compartmentalize these beliefs in order to shield their own awareness from the conflict they produce when considered in the context of observable reality.

No single factor predisposes an individual to adopting the religious view of the world more than acceptance of the metaphysical primacy of consciousness. Religion is a worldview premised expressly in primacy of consciousness metaphysics. The question of which religion one adopts rests in a variety of other factors, such as his immediate social influences, the prevailing religion in his culture, the nature of his education, etc. Ultimately acceptance of the religious view of the world hinges on an individual’s own choices. However, I also recognize that the culture I grew up in relative to many others around the world is one which to some degree or another fosters curiosity, inquisitiveness, opportunities to question and express doubt, etc., all of which I have enjoyed beyond my own realization. This is not the case for all human beings throughout history, of course. Many people live in cultures which actively prohibit freedom of thought and questioning of authority, while others tend to wash out curiosity and inquisitiveness at an early age through mind-diminishing indoctrination. I worry that this is happening to our culture now as the template for negating one’s own mind that is so characteristic of religion has become commonplace outside the church.

Does religion serve an evolutionary need? Ayn Rand referred to religion as “a primitive form of philosophy – an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality,” stating that “many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive aspect of man’s existence” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 25). It is beyond dispute in my view that man needs philosophy. This need for philosophy is a consequence of his achievement of the conceptual level of consciousness, and his achievement of the conceptual level of consciousness is no doubt a result of advancement of the human organism on the evolutionary scale. In this sense, religion can be seen as an attempt, as Rand rightly puts it, to satisfy a need which human beings have inherited as a result of their special evolution. But this does not mean that man has an evolutionary need for religion; man does not need religion any more than he needs a nail gun pressed to his cranium. The intact brain that he was born with will do just fine – he just needs to learn to use it properly. And that is the task of philosophy. 

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

"the persistence of religion is being treated as evidence that the evolutionary paradigm is in fact not true"

Sounds right. I think the point is, partly, to hold up religion as something special and unique about the human species, as a way to show we're not like the other animals, so they and we can't have descended from common ancestors.


P.S. I'm studying your writings, Dawson, on cosmological arguments as I'm due for a friendly semi-debate on the topic (specifically, the Kalaam cosmological argument) next Tuesday night. I invite one and all to tune in on Youtube when it's on. Details to come.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Jason,

That sounds exciting! I hope you've found something of value in my writings on these matters. Please share the link once it's up - I'm sure many would like to see the debate. I for sure would love to see it!

Thank you!

Robert Kidd said...

I wonder if the so-called great filter is really just intelligent beings maintaining their primitive forms of philosophy while their scientific knowledge progresses to the point that they will inevitably destroy themselves. I'm thinking of George W. Bush listening to God while having the authority and codes to launch Nuclear missiles or the woke military leaders of today having them.

Robert Kidd

Bahnsen Burner said...

That's a fascinating wondering-out-loud, Robert. Perhaps one could argue that once a species develops the conceptual level of consciousness, philosophy will necessarily take over as the primary driver of the species' subsequent evolutionary development, or impede it, whatever the case may be.

If only more individuals would treat philosophy as important as what fast food restaurant they're going to raid next...

Lots to think about there.


Jason mc said...

Cosmological conference will be here - 19:30 UTC is what we're aiming for.

I was promised a water-tight case for theism. So look forward to that!

Jason MC

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks, Jason. Most likely I won't be able to watch live, if this is a livestream, but hopefully I'll be able to catch it later.

One point I've often observed when examining theistic arguments is that when I get to the conclusion, I still find that I have to imagine the god whose existence is said to be proved by the argument. God is supposed to be an existent - perhaps "not just any existent" - but an existent either way. So distinguishing "God" as an actually existing thing from something that a person may simply be imagining, well, that's the apologist's task whether he realizes it or not (most seem not to from what I have witnessed). Hopefully the water-tight case takes these points into account.


Jason mc said...

It was a very long conversation! Spent too much time on one side issue, I reckon, the question of whether "actual infinities" (in space or time) can logically exist.

The caused universe -> God inferential step should have been the place we focussed on, as we did in our previous conversation at Speakers' Corner. That was a very brief part of what we actually discussed.

I was willing to grant his non-all-inclusive definition of "universe". This universe concept subsumes only "physical" stuff: matter, space and time. Only a cause without those properties would be permitted as a non-circular explanation: so something immaterial, spaceless, timeless.

Does this universe concept include power, consciousness, and life, and likewise need a cause that's the negation of those: powerless, unconscious, and inanimate? That's what I'll ask my friend next time.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Jason,

Thanks for the update! Just to be clear, is this the link to your recent conversation?

Link: The Argument for God from the Universe | LiveStream Discussion with an Atheist | Arul Velusamy

I found this at the reference you gave above on the Operation Stephen YouTube channel. At nearly three and half hours, yes, it's fairly long. That's okay though. While my own time allowance is always compressed, I have stamina for things like this. I watched the first twenty or so minutes and already have oodles of thoughts! Maybe I'll post some reactions of mine on my blog in the near future, if that's okay?

Hope all is going well.


Jason mc said...

Hey Dawson, yes that is the one. Looking forward to reading your reactions.

Things are well, thanks. Hope it's going well for you and family, too!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Jason,

I wanted to share this earlier, but we were without internet service for much of the past two days.

On Saturday I posted some thoughts on your discussion with Arul Velusamy:

On the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Of course, it is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire discussion. I chose instead to focus on the argument being debated and a few related issues.