CAM on the Evolutionary Origins of Religion

Quite apart from our discussion on Watson and racism, Horvath has an interesting discussion of the evolutionary origin of religion, about which he has a question or two.

[I]n Dawkins’s The God Delusion, he argues that religion is a ‘misfire’ of an evolutionary trait, much like how a moth is drawn to its death by a flame because it is used to the sun being a very safe distance away. The problem with the ‘misfire’ way of thinking, however, is that all moths are attracted to the flames. What we want to know is how our atheistic friends managed to rise above their ‘misfire.’ Are they claiming that they are evolutionarily superior to the rest of us? Perhaps they are a new species? If not, they should be subject to the same ‘misfire’ that the religionists are drawn to. We can then turn the tables on them and suggest that perhaps their version of reality is likewise a ‘misfire.’

Mr. Horvath, like so many other believers, has mistaken the existence of the question for the non-existence of the answer. Let’s have a look at these, shall we?

“If God had meant for man to fly, He would have given him wings.” How many times have we, as a species, run into hereditary limitations, only to overcome them by careful thought and hard work? How is it that we, as a species, are able to overcome limitations on our ability to perceive things accurately (or at all!), through careful application of the scientific method?

The answer lies in the oft-cited principle we use here at ER, which is that the truth is consistent with itself. Illusions are not consistent with the truth (i.e. with reality). By definition, that’s what makes them “illusions” rather than accurate perceptions. The self-consistency of the truth is what enables us to rise above such perceptual misfires as might otherwise lead us to believe that the earth is flat, or that lightning is fire from heaven, or that software bugs are caused by invisible, intelligent gremlins. By careful application of the scientific method, we can expose the inconsistencies that betray the difference between illusion and reality, and thus identify and eliminate the inaccuracy far better than our hereditary limitations would ordinarily allow.

Mr. Horvath is certainly welcome to try and “turn the tables” on us by applying the scientific method to the claims of religion. The scientific method is, after all, a set of tools designed to search for and evaluate a theory’s consistency with real-world truth, so if Christianity really is true, we ought to find a documentable consistency between Christianity and reality, and between Christianity and itself. Science is the ideal tool for such endeavors, because it applies a methodology that is self-correcting and which has built-in mechanisms that compensate for perceptual bias.

Faith, by contrast, maximizes the impact of such perceptual limitations, which is why you see so much inconsistency in the Christian church, as a whole, today. And not just Christianity, but virtually all superstitious, theistic religions. We have the mental tools available to enable us to rise above evolutionary “misfires,” just as we have clothes to keep us warm in the absence of inherited fur. But some people choose to run around naked anyway, physically and mentally. It’s not that atheists are somehow superior to believers. The same options are available to all, and believers are more than welcome to pick up the same tools, and use them.

By the way, I must disagree with Dawkins as regards religion being a “misfire.” Religion is an evolutionary adaptation to the limitations of human thinking: there are simply too many variables that affect our happiness and well-being, and too much uncertainty and complexity in the circumstances that affect us, for us to be able to logically and analytically process it all. We are social beings, and we have social instincts that help us to manage our relationships with one another–relationships that are also complex, uncertain, and important to our happiness and well-being. Religion helps manage the information overload by reducing life to a set of social relationships, thus adding the “processing power” of our social instincts to the problem of how to deal with everything you need to know to get by.

This in and of itself is not a maladaptation; the problem arises when people begin to project their own preferences, agendas, and prejudices onto the invisible spirit or spirits who putatively control the otherwise impersonal aspects of our existence. “Somebody up there must like me” is not a terrible world view, but “God hates fags” is a problem (not to say a travesty!). I have no objections to religion, per se, and I’ve even got one myself which actually works better for me than Christianity did. The important thing is that religion needs to be informed by science, and not cling to primitive dogmas and obvious myths. Treat it as your personal handle, as an admitted oversimplification, as something that does not impose any moral or religious obligations on anyone else, and religion can be a good thing.

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