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Katie van Schaijik

The origins of religion

Nov. 16, 2009, at 5:02pm

The author of a recent New York Times Week in Review article, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” (who also authored a book titled, The Faith Instict: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures”) takes pains to appear even-handed in his treatment of his religion.  He carefully prescinds from the question of the actual existence of God.  And, as over and against those who blame religion for most of the world’s ills, he is generous in elaborating the evolutionary benefits of religion for society.  For instance:

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

Still, the basic assumption on which his thesis rests is both unexamined and ineluctably hostile to the central tenets of religious faith as it is actually held by religious people. 

Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

According to the author, atheists resist this idea because it involves acknowledging that religion is a by and large good for society.  For believers, “it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.”

Speaking for myself, I find the idea that religion “exists because it was favored by natural selection” not so much threatening as asinine. 

Who can take seriously a treatment of religion that 1) sets aside the question of truth, and 2) assumes its origins are entirely natural (i.e. non-divine)?  And who can really imagine that such a treatment is not unfavorable to religion or insulting to religious people?  I agree rather with Newman, who in his marvelous essay Milman’s View of Christianity, shows that in terms at least of psychological effect on readers, “to ignore the Almighty in ecclesiastical history is really to deny Him.”


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