Science reporter Nicholas Wade just published a book which boasts that his insights into the evolution of the human predisposition to supernatural beliefs offer some sort of new or one of a kind explanation for why we have religion in society. To help promote his case, he wrote an article in the New York Times which makes a reference to the hypothetical God gene, some sort of innate component that makes us believe in deities. As you might imagine, the article offers no revelations. We know that religion evolved and stuck around through natural selection and we have a timeline of how it happened. Wade’s truncated account of our transitions from a scattering of hunter-gatherer tribes with shamans leading animistic rituals to modern megachurches, only warrants real attention because he argues that all our religious predispositions must be biological in nature.
If you’ve furrowed your eyebrows and wonder about the validity of that statement, you’re not alone. Yes, we can argue about the nature of our predisposition to religion. However, we do need to learn the tenants of a certain faith. Otherwise, what exactly would we believe? This is one of the biggest problems with arguing that there’s an actual religion gene because so many of our beliefs are highly organized and people are indoctrinated into religion through childhood. More than that, people change their religions and some give it up altogether. So if we accept that Wade is right and there is a genetic nature to our religious belief, we would also have to find an explanation for the current rise in self-professed atheism which involves the religious genes in question being muted through natural selection.
I would even go as far as offer myself as an example against the argument of natural religious tendencies. In my childhood, there was never any emphasis on religion and I grew up without strong religious beliefs. True, there was a time when I sifted through theology because I was exposed to some esoteric ideas and wanted to get a better grip on them but it was an outside stimulus that prompted me to do so, not some innate urge that many theists love to describe. Does this mean I’m some sort of mutant? You could counter my account with a frequently used meme about how many atheists and agnostics start off as theists but you would be using a very contaminated sample because many households in which atheists are born tend to be religious and as the would-be non-theists grow up, they’re bombarded with religious messages until it becomes a part of their culture. Then, they go through a separation process and become non-theists. What happened to the genes in these cases? Did they suddenly deactivate after they made the conscious decision that their religion no longer made sense to them? Clearly, the natural religion argument is fraught with countless problems.
And there’s something rather bizarre about Wade’s column. Almost straight into it, we see what might seem to be a shot across the bow at atheists and agnostics based on the theist canard of their anti-religiosity…
For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because [faith] conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.
Pardon me Mr. Wade, but what in the FSM’s noodly appendage are you talking about? Are you trying to do an eye-opening, legitimate scientific exploration of religion or just trying to stick it to the atheists? We know that a society based around the same beliefs would have more social cohesion. We know that civilizations wielding religion as a tool for inspiration and social unity did very well. But we also know that any belief would do that, as long as it’s shared. Religion wasn’t useless when it appeared. This was never an argument advanced by the most prominent atheists out there. Instead, the argument was that today, with a decent grip on the basics of science, we’re hitting the point of diminishing returns when it comes to religion. Antibiotics cure diseases, faith healing offers solace. Holy texts offer navel-gazing ruminations, science offers the chance to find the real answers. And while religions probably won’t go anywhere, the ones we have now are outdated, being slowly replaced by New Age spin-offs and science fiction-esque transhumanism just like Christianity and Islam took their sweet time in replacing pagan traditions over the course of centuries.
Expect Wade’s book to be widely used by anti-atheist crusaders who love to mention how religion has to be a human trait and all atheists do is suppress their originally godly nature. Since the press loves to stir up some sort of big nature vs. nurture debate on religion, even if it has to make one up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the hypothesis being advocated here to get plenty of time in the spotlight.
[ shaman illustration by Maria Trepalina ]