Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Religion Embraces Evolution?

I appreciate Some Guy saying that he followed Monty Python's Flying Circus religiously. And while I can, unfortunately, confirm that he was a dork in high school (weren't we all?) I need to thank him for providing the foreshadowing to my post. For as I constantly strive to seek universal Truth (that's with a big T) I start to tackle the human condition known as religion (see what I did there - my bias on display already!).

The recent book "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures" by Nicholas Wade explores his theory that people have a genetic impulse to worship due to the natural selection benefit provided to early societies that adopted religion. I have read books on the historical development of religion, by both atheists (such as Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion") and those of faith (including "The Dawkins Delusion" which I recently started), and I intend to put Mr. Wade's new addition on my list as well. Fortunately, my new favorite newspaper columnist, John Tierney of the New York Times Science section, did read it. The money quote (which includes a quote from the book itself):

In “The Faith Instinct,” after discussing some of the challenges to traditional beliefs (like the arguments of scholars that Jesus had little to do with the invention of Christianity, and that Muhammad might not even have existed), Nicholas notes that music appreciation, like religion, is a universal human faculty that draws people together, stirs the emotions, and exalts the mind to a different plane. He then observes:

Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age? The three monotheisms were created to meet conditions in societies that existed many centuries ago. The fact that they have endured for so long does not mean they were meant to last for ever, only that they have become like some favorite Mozart opera that people are happy to hear over and over again. But the world of music did not achieve final perfection in Mozart.

This is a brilliant observation by Mr. Wade. I hazard to guess that high-ranking officials in each of the Big Three Religions (in case you live under a rock - uh, a rock with Internet access - the Big Three consists of Christianity, Judaism and Islam) agree with portions of this sentiment. They DO need to evolve, and have done a piss-poor job of this in, oh, say the past 600 years. While standing around in their official garb (hey - it's a word!), the priest the rabbi and the imam (no, sadly this is not the beginning of a joke) would be loathe to admit that people only go because it has been something they are used to hearing over and over, like Mozart. It may not be a good reason, but it may just be the most common reason. And just like fans of the New York Yankees, they need to understand Mr. Wade's point - that just because they've been the winner before does not mean their institutions should endure.

Dawkins presents his argument in unabashedly indignant fashion, and this can feel like a club of the figurative head while reading his material. A biologist by education, Dawkins can (somewhat ironically - check me here, Some Guy) be "holier than thou" in his assertions, almost daring people to argue with him and giving off a vibe that if you beleive in God it is because you're not smart enough not to. But he brings with his arrogance a certain scientific credibility in his arguments. This is something I believe, for obvious reasons, the faithful cannot counter, for much of their argument boils down to "we believe it all happened, so it must have". This doesn't make it wrong, just as it doesn't make it right. On this issue, rarely do people use logic over emotion, and the discussion quickly breaks down.

Perhaps Dawkins' fatal flaw is that he doesn't distinguish between religion, faith and god, three very different ideas. God is the all-powerful being itself, and faith is the belief in.....well, something. But religion, while presumably based on the first two (faith in God) has become an entirely separate, almost corporate, entity, which can seemingly exist regardless of the actual existence of a supreme being. And maybe this is where Wade will shine, as he seems to identify a need to worship as something separate from the existence of god (or God, which ever he's talking about). Tierney wraps up his article discussing one idea for the evolution of religion:

What would the product of such a transformation look like? One possibility that occurs to me is a version of environmentalism, but with better music and with rituals that are more elegant than sorting garbage. A Church of Green could provide some of the same moral lessons and communal values as traditional religions, and I suspect it’s no coincidence that green fervor is especially prevalent in European countries where traditional religion is on the decline.

I can't wait to read Wade's contribution to the ancient and escalating debate. What do the faithful of Bowling in the Dark think?


  1. The "Big Three" religions, by number of followers, are Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism -- each with over a billion followers -- with Buddism close behind. Judaism, at around 15 million followers, lags far behind... when tribal religions and such are factored in, Judaism isn't even in the top ten.

    The "Big Three" you listed are the monotheistic faiths, which suggests that perhaps you've ignored nearly half of the world's religions population. Seeing as how the scope of the column is the evolution of religion, it does seem odd that you have ignored faiths such as Hindusim and Buddism... religions which are much further along in their own evolutions than the "Big Three."

    My suggestion is that the reason Hinduism and Buddism have survived for so long, and in such strong numbers, is because they've already accomplished the very evolution you're anticipating for the Abrahamic religions.

    I'd put my sources in here but for some reason, it doesn't allow cutting and pasting, and I'm too lazy to type any more.

  2. Dr. Brainsmart, are you suggesting that Hinduism and Buddhism are further (farther?) along in their evolutions because they've been around longer, or because they're not monotheistic? Or because of other reasons, for example the vaguely "I'm okay, you're okay" attitude that they (sometimes, sort of, likely with plenty of notable exceptions) show towards other religions, which the monotheistic religions (sometimes, sort of, with plenty of exceptions) lack?

    I'd be very interested in seeing where Mr. Bandit, Dr. Brainsmart, and Mr. Wade place the various religions on the scale of less- to more-evolved. Is Scientology, for example, more evolved because it developed recently and it's theoretically more in tune with modern society, it's fresh, new, eye-catching, actively litigious and generally media-savvy . . . or less evolved because it's crazy batshit bananas?

    Apologies, of course, to any offended readers who are, in fact, crazy batshit bananas.

  3. Scientology is more evolved because it's all about (hands waving) spaaaaaaaaace and stuff.

  4. Dr. Brainsmart, it would be interesting to include the polytheistic religions in the discussion. I did not include them for two reasons: 1) the excerpts of Wade's book do not mention them; and 2) I didn't even think of including them. Mainly, the intent of the posting was to point out Wade's book, bring Dawkins into the discussion, and bring up the issue of religion vs. god (or God) vs. faith.

    However, since you bring them up, are you trying to argue that the polythestic religions have similar political power as the three main monothestic ones do?

  5. Some Guy - I don't think Wade develops a scale for where in the evolutionary cycle each religion is. But without having actually, you know, read the book, I cannot say this for sure.

    And I still need a ruling from the Irony Police - was that phrase I mention in the piece actual irony?

  6. Mr. Bandit, my opinion as an amateur irony-identifier is that your use of "holier than thou" to describe Richard Dawkins is indeed ironic, given his rather strident and even butthole-y stance on religion and belief and, by extension, all things holy (or theoretically holy).

    However, given that I'm only an amateur irony identifier, I could be wrong here. It's possible that, to be truly ironic, Dawkins himself would need to describe his own attitude as "holier than thou." But maybe not. How's that for a non-answer?