The so-called God gene


The Sunday New York Times magazine featured an article by Robin Marantz Henig that discussed whether there is an evolutionary basis for religious belief. This idea has been tossed around for a while now in the popular press--there has been talk of the so-called "God gene". For me, there is no contradiction between the notion that religious belief may have evolved within humans and the notion that God exists; I think this would no more refute religious belief than the fact that humans have evolved an organ for perceiving photons refutes the existence of light, or the fact that humans may have evolved some sort of artistic appreciation for poetry and music refutes the existence of poets and musicians.

However, I do take issue with some of the points that are presented in Henig's article. To start with, in order to assert that there is an evolutionary basis for religion, you first have to establish what religion is. And here is where things get fuzzy.

For example: religion does not necessarily entail a belief in a theistic God. Henig acknowleges this early in the article when she refers to "an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science." This clearly expresses a broad definition of religion to include non-theistic religions, such as certain varieties of Buddhism, or panentheisic religions like process theology. But then, throughout most of the rest of the article, it seems to me that she essentially falls back on the assumption that religion really is about believing in a Western-style, orthodox Christian, theistic God, who acts by dint of divine intervention--even when she tries to make generalized, universal statements about religion as a whole.

She writes, for example: "According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth." Such beliefs may indeed be found in virtually every culture, but they are not characteristic of every religion or variety of religious belief; and, within many cultures, theistic beliefs and non-theistic beliefs may even co-exist side-by-side. The key point here is this: "religions that share certain supernatural features" is not the same as saying that all religions share those supernatural features. The mistake that I think creeps into this article is that it conflates belief in those theistic elements with belief in God per se. They aren't necessarily the same thing.

To cite another example, Henig points out that

"About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent."
She goes on to use the word "universal", based on this survey of Americans, to describe these beliefs. I don't believe in angels or the existence of miracles, and I'm an agnostic on the question of heaven and life after death. Yet I believe in God. So where do I fit in? And if 6 in 10 Americans believe in something, that means that 4 in 10 don't--a substantial minority. And Americans are not the whole world. What do most Danes, or Germans, or Swiss believe? And what about non-Western cultures? The Japanese? (And how do atheists fit into this scenario? She does address this question near the end of the article, a point I will get to later.)

In much of the early part of the article, she reports on the ideas of anthropologist Scott Atran, who asserts that "religious belief requires taking 'what is materially false to be true' and 'what is materially true to be false.'" This is nonsense. Religious belief requires nothing of the sort, and this fallacy apparently informs everything about Atran's research. Later in the article, she focuses on other Darwinian perspectives on how religious belief may have originated. Yet, in all of this "debate" about how religion originated, there is still the problem of defining what religion really is.

She asserts, for example, that "the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion." This is not really true. To cite a historical example, the early Jewish religion did not focus on an afterlife, and made only the vaguest reference to it in the early biblical writings--dead people were sometimes referred to as having gone to Sheol, the realm of the dead--not really much of an afterlife. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests strongly that the author did not believe in life after death. It was only later, particularly in post-exilic times, particularly when martyrdom for the sake of Judaism needed a kind of vindication, that you started to see more of a development of ideas of an afterlife. Even in Jesus's lifetime, the Sadducees did not belief in the resurrection of the dead. As this example shows, there is nothing inherent about a belief in an afterlife for a religion to be meaningful to its adherents.

Indeed, it is not at the heart of my religion at all. To me, religion is about life in the here and now, about my relationship with God and how I live in accordance with that, not about any afterlife that may or may not exist.

Returning to the question of how atheism could even exist, given this supposed universal human trait, Atran's faulty conception of religion as simply another word for superstition is illustrated by his supposed struggle to retain his atheism in a nonatheist world: "Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case." Here, Atran confuses religion with superstition, atheism with rationality--a serious misconception on his part--and he also equates his own propensity for superstition with some sort of universal struggle by atheists to maintain their hold on their belief system. I bet this is news to a lot of atheists, who are quite comfortable in their beliefs and who face no such struggle to hold on to them.

In my own atheist days, I had no trouble resisting any supposed impulse to cross my fingers or knock on wood. I don't believe I was superstitious then, and I don't think I am superstitious now. Religion has nothing to do with Atran's facile conception of it. One can be religious and superstitious, or religious and rational; one can be, as Atran shows, an atheist and superstitious. The real struggle within modern Christianity today is, I believe, the battle between rational religion and irrational religion--between the vestiges of premodern theism and a broader conception of God that is consistent with post-Enlightenment science. Both conceptions of religion are equally possible. One is not "more" inherent to religious belief than the other is.

I think Henig is correct when she says near the end of the article, "No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural." This yearning for the supernatural, this seeking of what Tillich calls the Ultimate Concern, this reaching out towards that which is greater than us--that is, I believe, what religion is really about. Not superstition, not narrowness, not attachment to a set of doctrinal beliefs about the afterlife or spirits in the sky--but rather that which opens us up to the greatest of our ambitions, our hopes, and aspirations. The way this manifests itself varies greatly among different cultures and individuals. Some individuals may also incorporate beliefs of angels, or an afterlife, or a God who intervenes in the world, into their religion. But there is nothing inherent about these beliefs in the nature of religion. And if you are going to make universal statements about religious belief, you need to remove those elements that are optional.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Great piece! I had just printed off Henig's article and had yet to read it. I guess I'll still read it, but you've laid out an excellent response!