Saturday, May 05, 2007

Evolutionary psychology: Religious belief is and is not adaptive!

At least according to University of Washington evolutionary psychologist David Barash, tpo many evolutionary psychologists, it is not:
On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against. Think of the frequent advocacy of sexual restraint, of tithing, of self-abnegating moral duty and other seeming diminutions of personal fitness, along with the characteristic denial of the "evidence of our senses" in favor of faith in things asserted but not clearly demonstrated. What fitness-enhancing benefits of religion might compensate for those costs?

Of course, the most reasonable conclusion is that longstanding stable religious belief originates in individuals’ actual transcendent experiences, that they really do touch a divine ground of being, and therefore their evolutionary success or failure is irrelevant to the experience and its outcome. But don’t expect to hear that from evolutionary psychology!

Also, Barash makes quite clear that “evolutionary” means “genetic.”
King is quick to dismiss a "genetic approach" to understanding the evolution of religiosity, heaping what may be appropriate scorn on Dean Hamer's simplistic, overhyped claim for a "God gene." But she doesn't seem to realize that any evolutionary approach is necessarily, at its heart, a genetic one. We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

Anyone who wonders why I say here that there is no possibility of an accommodation between a materialist Darwinian view of religion, as set out in the books reviewed by a sympathetic Barash, and any traditional transcendental belief need only read Barash’s review essay.

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