Did Religion Merely Evolve?

18 08 2009

This week, the book discussion group of which I am a part considered the idea of whether religion and religious beliefs are merely the product of evolution. Of course the author, Paul Ehrlich, assumes that this is the case as he is a naturalist and committed to explaining everything in life and culture via the evolutionary model. However, Ehrlich is not the first to have come up with this idea, nor is he the most recent to make this claim.evolution_cartoon

On the way home from the book discussion, I happened to catch a radio conversation between a couple of authors on this very subject. The first was Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, a new book that takes that to which Ehrlich devoted one chapter and expands it out over 400 pages. I have not personally read this book; however, his counterpoint on this radio program was one of my own professors, John Mark Reynolds, from Biola University. Reynolds is a philosopher and the author of his latest book, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought.  Reynolds’ critique of Wright covered a number of issues; however, one of his main critiques of Wright was his lack of interaction with some of the more recent philosophers of religion and his failure to cite references for many of his assertions. Again, I won’t comment further since I have not read Wright’s book.

I did read Ehrlich’s treatment of this topic and in reading some of the reviews of Wright’s book, it seems that they are arguing the same case, with Ehrlich doing it in a more summary fashion. So, back to the main question, did religion merely evolve?

Ehrlich’s contention regarding religion, as it is for many of his arguments regarding the development of human culture, is that we developed this trait or capacity due to the increasing size of our brains which resulted from the addition of meats and other proteins to our diets. Ehrlich argues that the capacity of our brains (not our minds) has given us awareness of the temporary nature of our lives and that there are places beyond where we live, potentially places that are up to this point, unknowable.

Religion to Ehrlich is a way of trying to reconcile the anxiety that we experience in life, as well as a way to create within us a certain emotion or exhilaration; the same type of exhilaration he says he gets when he sees his granddaughter, hears a well-drilled band, or pushes the throttle of an airplane. Ehrlich does see a difference between homo sapiens and Neanderthals in that we have more of a religious experience and ceremony when we bury our dead including the decoration of the body. Ehrlich also believes that seeing cause and effect patterns is hardwired into our systems and that we may also have invented causes for observed, yet currently unexplained effects in order to quell the anxiety of those unexplained events.

Ehrlich goes on to explain other behaviors and phenomena, all through a purely evolutionary paradigm, while not really giving an actual basis for drawing these conclusions. It seems that when one starts with evolutionary naturalism, one also has to try to fit all the pieces of the puzzle into that model, even if it means the person has to force the pieces to fit at times, and our group came to that conclusion about him in our discussion of this chapter. Although some of his explanations seem plausible, evolution still doesn’t explain how the universe (all matter, space, and time) came to be, why morality seems to be objective in nature (which it could not be given naturalism), the fine tuning of the universe, the existence of the mind, the resurrection of Jesus, and many other issues related to religion and science.

Ehrlich could be completely correct in his explanation of how religion came to be and yet, God could still actually exist. Yet, I find the whole explanation to be somewhat ad hoc. In other words, evolution is assumed to begin with and then religion is explained in light of the assumed evolutionary framework. I don’t see in these explanations such a slam dunk case being presented that it could not just as plausibly be explained via the Biblical model. To be more specific, if the biblical model is correct, which I think for many reasons it is, it tells us that man’s understanding of God has been corrupted by sin. Even though we have God’s written word, we still get things wrong. Now, go back to a time when people didn’t have a written revelation of God, nor regular direct interaction with God, and we can understand how so many different religious strains grew up over time.

Combine all of this with man’s autonomous nature and we can also understand how so many of these religions put man at the center and God at the periphery. It is man, in most religions (with the exception of Christianity and Judaism, before it was corrupted), who is responsible for working his way to God and earning heaven, paradise, or whatever form of eternal reward the religion describes.

I also think that most evolutionists underestimate how intelligent people were in past ages. When we think of the great classical thinkers of Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there are not many today that could probably produce the level of thinking that they produced without the benefit of our technological advances. When we look at engineering feats like the pyramids of Egypt and Central and South America which were produced without hydrolics and the heavy equipment that we have today, it is a marvel. I believe that we often look to the past with a chronological bias, thinking that we are somehow smarter because we have devices like computers, when what they produced in their day is technologically more amazing given their lack of the types of aids that we have today.

Did religion evolve to help us to answer those unanswered questions and deal with our anxieties? I find this explanation to lack explanatory scope. There are too many issues that remain unresolved by positing this explanation for religion and religious belief. Sure, it may address these issues like trying to explain the unknown or as a way to resolve anxiety. Yet, do we really think that morality is not objective as it would be if the concept of God merely evolved? Do we really think that the universe is either eternal, uncaused, or somehow self-caused as it must be if God really doesn’t exist? I don’t think that many, if any of us would be satisfied with these consequences that seem follow from the religious evolutionary hypothesis. I think when all the evidence is taken together, it is more reasonable to conclude that God exists, then to believe that he does not. If God exists, then it is also possible that he could have revealed himself to us and that is what is reported and recorded in the Bible. If Jesus existed, as history seems to indicate, then he isn’t a concoction of evolutionary thought as some would suggest. I find it more reasonable to suggest that the supernatural does exist and that God is a better explanation for the existence of matter, space and time, then to believe that it simply popped into being. The concept of religion as an evolved concept is simply too difficult for me to believe.

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