God and Darwin walk together

An interesting article in the Guardian by Robert Winston, reflecting on the human need for religion, and whether such a need is acquired or genetic, and in either case whether it is harmful or beneficial.  One needs to get past the first few paragraphs, which appear to equate all religion with snake-handling and mental illness, to the counter-arguments that follow.

We are all symbolic animals by genetic predisposition.  This endows us with three behavioral traits apparently missing in the rest of the animal kingdom.  First, we believe in things unseen:  the theory of relativity, for example, or the Trinity, or (for me) the existence of Uganda, or (for others) the existence of unicorns.  Second, we desire very powerfully to see all the data of the world cohere into a story:  we hate the thought that God plays dice with the universe.  Third, we desire even more powerfully to derive personal meaning from the story of the world:  we each crave an important place in life’s drama.

All three behavioral predispositions form the foundation of many human institutions, not least government and science.  But I think religion, beyond doubt, draws on them most deeply and successfully, to erect a shared view of the world and of the way we ought to act in it.

That human beings are genetically disposed to religion is almost certain.  Winston offers supporting evidence from surveys and identical-twin studies, but this is thin stuff compared to what we know of the history of our species.  Religion is a human universal.  Behaviors associated with religion must have conferred enough of an advantage, in the dawn of time, to allow those who possessed such behaviors to survive, reproduce, and pass them on to us who are their descendants.

But are the behaviors associated with religion still beneficial, or have they become a harmful genetic legacy from a more ignorant and primitive age?  That’s harder to say, of  course; any judgment will contain a large subjective element.  Richard Dawkins, a brilliant neo-Darwinist cited by Winston, becomes fairly unhinged by what he considers the “costs” of religious behavior:   it “devours huge resources,” Dawkins argues. “A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and Renaissance talent.”

Dawkins probably assumes that secular activities would have produced a sane (or, in his language, less costly) equivalent of the cathedrals and Renaissance art.  But why would that be the case?  In the end, all the talk of “religious behaviors” comes down to a peculiarly human need to transcend our individual selves:  and because of this need, Christian art could tap into imaginative depths unavailable to self-interest.

I can think of few historical examples of societies that did away with religion.  One was the Soviet Union, which fell apart at the seams (largely, let it be noted, along religious lines – Orthodox Russia, Catholic Ukraine, Protestant Baltics, and Muslim Central Asia).  The Marxist-Leninist doctrine embraced by the Soviet ruling elite, like the worship of  “reason” during the French Revolution, can be seen as a good example of what in fact transpires when we reject traditional religion:  in its place we erect a monstrous parody of religion, bristling with intolerance, but stripped of personal morality.

An example of the voluntary rejection of religious behavior can be found in today’s Europe.  No doubt this is the model Dawkins believes is the alternative to faith:  a society organized along wholly secular, scientific, “rational” lines.  But Europeans, having lost the urge to transcendence, have also lost the ability to reproduce.  They are failing in the most basic and Darwinian sense:  and behind them come, not armies of enlightened scientists and artists, but a host of immigrants who pray toward Mecca, inflexibly, five times a day.


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