Saturday, February 23, 2008

Does religion produce an evolutionary advantage?

Is it possible to study religious belief scientifically? It all depends on what you mean by it.

The John Templeton Foundation will be spending $4 million to answer this question:
Is there "evidence about whether belief in God confers an evolutionary advantage to humankind"?
You'll find this in a recent British article published by Ekklesia, "Oxford centre to conduct scientific study of religious belief."

While it will be interesting to see what $4m will produce to answer these questions, the very question is a speed bump.

The study will not determine if God exists, what God would be like, nor even if there are soulish capacities in humans that hungers for God. Rather the study will focus on the biological makeup of the human species to see if there is a biological survival-advantage for believing in God.

Can you see how motivated this is on the side of the atheistic scientist? If they can show that believing in God is biologically disadvantageous, the general public would be gullible enough to believe them despite so many other evidences about the truthfulness of God and religious experience.

This, on my view, is good waste of money because they are asking an uninteresting question. The study assumes, if I'm reading the article correctly, that "philosophical naturalism" is the starting point (This view says that all that exists is the physical universe and all our experience is a result of what can be explained through physics, chemistry, and biology. In other words, there is nothing spiritual in existence.) What exactly do they expect to find?

Science cannot thoroughly explain beliefs, thoughts, ideas, beauty, love, emotions (they can find correlations in the brain, but not the emotion itself), meaning or anything that pertains to the soul. This study is putting science to the task of evaluating unscientific things. What if belief in God does not produce scientific 'survival' or 'advantage' in this study? Does that render God untrue? Or what if God gives us 'survival' or 'advantage' that is outside physical processes? Can science measure that?

Suppose we asked this question, "Does beauty (e.g. flowers, sunsets, rainbows, art, people, etc) give us evolutionary advantage?" Science would find little evidence for it. Beauty in this world appears superfluous. That we have a wide variety of sensual pleasures from taste to sight to hearing to touch cannot be explained as 'evolutionary advantagous' to our 'survival.' Yet, we'd lose a lot of meaning in this world if it wasn't for the aroma of sizzling bacon or the sound of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

Or make a comparison with marriage. It is biologically advantageous for men to be with woman to procreate through marriage. This allows the species to survive. Yet, someone may argue we don't need marriage for that as we can all just sleep around and impregnate each other. Ah, but the social scientist says that broken homes or reckless parenting does not allow the children to have advantage. So we need intimate bonds to produce that. And then, of course, children are our future and they get to repeat the process.

So marriage on this view has nothing to do with real promises, covenants, love, or even a content quality of life (unless those qualities keep you from depression or disease which would extend your life). It only has to do with 'evolutionary advantage' or the outcome for physical survival. The real meaning of marriage disappears.

Expect with the Templeton study that the real meaning of religion disappears too.

Such is the plight of a civilization that only allows knowledge through natural science, and natural science only done a certain way. It leaves a lot of important elements out.

Regardless of what information this scientific study reveals about the physical aspects of religion in a persons 'evolutionary advantage,' I will predict that it will be far less meaningful than the evidence we already having showing there is a God who benevolently created all humans, showed up among us, and then rose from the dead. In fact, the 'resurrection of the dead' gives us advantage beyond anything science can conjure up, yet it cannot be explained scientifically so it doesn't count. See how quickly faith alone in science alone becomes narrow-minded?

When Solomon said that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, he was onto something. He knew real human meaning in this world comes through physical AND spiritual processes, experience, and relationships.

I'd be glad to accept $4m from the Templeton Foundation to tell them that.... of course, I'd share it with my faithful readers! ;o)


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to clarify a few things about science vs. philosophical naturalism, as this seems to be a topic that gets muddied, particularly in conversations about evolution and Christianity.
I agree with you when you say that the study cannot determine if God exists--that is outside the realm of science. For that matter, so is beauty (except when measured by parameters that can be discussed by science, such as symmetrical proportions, mathematical precision, or neurotransmitter release in certain areas of the brain).
"Such is the plight of a civilization that only allows knowledge through natural science, and natural science only done a certain way." Science CANNOT be done another way--it is the study of the natural world, not the supernatural. This study, as long as it only seeks to correlate variables that it can actually measure, is not stepping outside the realm of science. It may very well be an uninteresting question, but that is another issue altogether.
A great many scientists are also philosophical naturalists, but there are also scientists who recognize the immaterial. A scientist’s beliefs about the world may surely influence what he chooses to study. However, if he is honest, his findings will hopefully be true to reality even if they don’t match his own preferences. That is why research is conducted in a specific way and peer-reviewed, to avoid bias and statistical error. (And, because the scientific field is self-correcting, if he is wrong--or even if he’s right-- it is only a matter of time before someone challenges his data/his theory.)
Science cannot give us everything—we need religion and philosophy, for these give the meaning behind the observations of science. As you pointed out, that study cannot comment on the meaning of its results. Individuals will take the observations and interpret them in their own philosophical framework. So, it isn’t the SCIENCE that is the problem, so much as it is the materialist/naturalist philosophy that many in our culture (scientists and non-scientists alike) have adopted. As Christians, who believe that people are bodies and souls intertwined, we can say that it would make sense if belief in God was “good” for our physical bodies as well—it’s in accordance with how God made us and intended for us to live. Plenty of other studies have been published supporting the idea that altruism, minimizing stress and anger, being in committed relationships, not getting drunk, getting proper rest, etc, decrease our risk of many chronic illnesses…interestingly, these are all things we are commanded to do by God. (Note, however, that this isn’t a perfect cause and effect relationship; clearly, Christians experience illness, catastrophe, etc. God never promised us a trouble-free life—in fact, quite the opposite. But we can also be guaranteed to reap the consequences of our actions (whether now or later) if we choose to live outside His will.) Too often I find that Christians, in their haste to avoid philosophic naturalism, reject science altogether—rather than using it for what it is, a tool to understand more about ourselves and the world around us. All truth is God’s truth…whether revealed in nature or in Scripture.


Dale Fincher said...


Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

I hope I didn't give the impression that we should be against science. It is, most certainly, one of the books of knowledge God has made available to us. And it's a common theme in the Judeo/Christian scriptures.

When I mentioned 'science done a certain way' I was alluding to the various philosophies of science that all claim to be doing 'science', including the broad branches of realist and anti-realist approaches to the natural world. So to simply say science is about the natural world isn't completely accurate. Anti-realists approaches are uncertain of a natural world (true metaphysical agnostics) but are simply studying phenomenology as it presents itself and practical results of interaction with it.

That we find benefits to belief in God is true and I'm sure the study will find this. Dallas Willard has a great essay on the 'cost of non-discipleship' that is along these lines.

But here's the caveat. Studies done to see whether religion has survival power, I'm afraid, will only reap the pragmatic. I think it plays right into the Zeitgeist of our confused culture and into multi-culturalist's hands (which is fueled in many ways by philosophical naturalism) by showing that belief in religious principles or resting in a higher power for the future will reap results.

But even this isn't based on truth. People today will believe a lot of things today, not because they are true, but because they are beneficial, e.g. the Secret. This study may tell me I can avoid an ulcer by believing that 'god X' holds my future in his hand. But if 'god X' isn't the one true God, then we will further calcify the false belief that 'any dream will do.' It won't do. It breaks down at some point... but then we get into various definitions of 'survival' and contrasting it with ancient themes of 'flourishing.'

So those are my broader concerns.

I agree with your comments. We cannot be suspicious of science, per se, but we can be cautious about how it is being done and how it is being used. The postmodern may be right... it's a power-play right now. I think Ben Stein's documentary will be pointing that out... a lot of science revolves around sociological norms more than actual science. I'm finding more reports like this and it should concern us.

Christians do need to study philosophical naturalism more (which was the main thrust of my graduate work)... it is new to many who thought 'evolution' was the real problem.

I find a good book on this is J. P. Moreland's "Christianity and the Nature of Science." The first chapter he reveals that science itself is very tricky to define... a very eye opening analysis that we would do well to understand more.

Again, thanks for your comment, Carrie. I appreciate it!

Ben Dyer said...

Hey Dale,

Just a quick note. The atheistic strategy here isn't to show that belief in God is disadvantageous, since no one I know thinks evolutionary biology gives us anything more than just basic instinctual drives to reproduce. Rather, I expect what the study will produce is a finding that humans are wired to believe in God because it confers a survival or reproductive advantage. Atheists will point out that while theistic beliefs may be useful for those two purposes, they can explain away the pervasiveness of religious belief by appeal to completely naturalistic phenomena. This will underwrite a strategy to dismiss the theist's claims as rationalizations built atop instinctual drives rather than truth claims with which they must engage, and against which they must defend their own views.

Dale Fincher said...

Ben, I couldn't agree with you more.

As long as the naturalist can keep the theist's motivations on the 'pragmatic' rather than on the 'true,' then the atheist has already won.

They know this isn't merely about 'believing' in God... it's about following what's true. If God starts sounding true, then they send out Dawkins and Hitchins with rhetorical books to create meaningless noise to keep the theist from being too heard!