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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Thinkquote of the day: On the inadequacy of language to describe spiritual experiences

No words in our human language are adequate or accurate when applied to spiritual realities; and it is the saints and not the sceptics who have most insisted on this. “No knowledge of God which we get in this life is true knowledge,” says St. John of the Cross. It is always confused, imperfect, oblique. Were it otherwise, it would not be knowledge of God. But we are helped by the fact that all the responses of men to the incitement of this hidden God, however it may reach them, follow much the same road. Even though they may call its various stages by very different names.

From Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (1937: reprint, Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1995), 51-52, quoted in La Vonne Neff (ed.)., The Gift of Faith: Short Reflections by Thoughtful Anglicans, ABC Publishing (Toronto 2004), p. 41.

Generally, there are two main schools of thought on mystical experience: perennialist and constructivist. Perennialists think that the experience is universal but the terminology is determined by culture and assumptions - that is, the mystic really does discover something about the nature of the universe that is true. Constructivists think that no single experience transcends culture and assumptions, which of course implies that mystics do not really discover anything about the nature of the universe. Of course there are shades in between ...

One thing I consider a shame is the recent vast increase in merely silly ideas on these subjects, many of which we send up in The Spiritual Brain .

The whole of Underhill’s great work Mysticism is online, and is simply the best resource I know of on classical mysticism and mystics.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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