Monday, July 16, 2007

How Evolution Tells Us that Religion is Probably a Good Thing

David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral, is interested in the evolution of religion. He has written a fascinating article for The Skeptic about his theories of religion and group selection. The article is couched as an attack (yet another) on Richard Dawkins. Dawkins bad tempered reply is rather odd because he admits that the parts of his book about evolution, to most readers the most interesting parts, are the least important.

I'm going to talk more about how Wilson's theories might help us understand the decline of violence and why religion is a 'good thing' in a few posts time. Firstly, though, I want to explain why two competing theories of religion - put forward by Dawkins and Dan Dennett, are non-starters.

Dawkins suggests, in The God Delusion, the religion is a harmful by-product of something useful. He uses the example of a moth's lunar navigation system causing it to circle in to a flame and incineration. Dawkins suggests that the propensity of children to believe what adults tell them is why they believe the religious ideas that they pick up from their parents. The main problem with this idea is that religion is not the result of a single factor, gullibility, but a wide complex of behaviours and beliefs. While it is possible that some of these are by products of something useful, it is vanishingly unlikely that they all are. Furthermore, because all these different religious traits gel so well together, it is likely that evolution has been selecting them as a piece to produce the human religiosity that we know today.

Besides, assuming that something is a harmful evolutionary by-product of something useful is assuming the exception before testing the rule. In general, we assume that a trait is an evolutionary adaptation that the organism has because it helps it out breed the opposition. It is premature to look for other explanations before we have done the leg work to discover whether or not a trait is adaptive and what its advantages might be. In the history of evolutionary theory there have been many cases where a trait’s advantages have initially escaped scientists’ notice. Further work has revealed how some forms of altruism, the peacock’s tail and (as Sloan Wilson explains) the gubby’s spots are all evolutionary adaptations that increase the fitness of their bearers.

This suggests to me that the starting point for many atheist analyses of religion is their own basic dislike for it. They assume the religion is a bad thing based on their own prejudices and inadequate anecdotal evidence. They then construct a theory that appeals to their instincts but has not scientific value at all. David Sloan Wilson, on the other hand, although an atheist himself, appears capable of looking at the subject objectively. As promised above, I will be returning to his work shortly.

In the meantime, two court cases were decided today in Britain. One declared that the slaughter of a Hindu sacred cow would be against the human rights of the group that looks after it. Another ruled that a teenage girl cannot wear an unobtrusive ring declaring her belief in chastity at school. If anyone doubted that Christianity is discriminated against in the UK while other religions are given a free ride, they need doubt no longer.

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