Figuring Out Religion, Evolution Style

Religion can be a bit of a sticky wicket for serious-minded secular scientists. Where did it come from? What’s its purpose? How might we get rid of it as soon as possible?

In her article “A Scientist’s New Theory: Religion Was Key to Humans’ Social Evolution,” Julie Zaummer, writing for The Washington Post, highlights a new study on the role of religion in evolutionary theories about social networking and survival. She quotes Robin Dunbar, professor from the University of Oxford, to explain how our species discovered a way to live together with some semblance of peace, “Somehow it’s clear that religions,” Dunbar says, “all these doctrinal religions, create the sense that we’re all one family.”

Humans have social networks, ergo, religion is a product of evolution. Makes sense to me. Wait, what?

First of all we should recognize that if we subscribe to a secular worldview, though unable to give a compelling explanation for where the world came from, or even the origins of life, we probably can’t sleep at night if we don’t have some paradigm for defining religion in naturalistic categories. In other words, we have to find a way, from a our natural perspective, to explain religion without any reference to, well, what we desperately hope to avoid, the thought of something outside of Nature. Fair enough.

Second, we have to recognize that if evolution is what caused religion, then it has been really successful. Evolution has pulled off the greatest hoax in human history. I mean, pretty much everyone who has ever breathed air on this pale blue dot has held some sort of religious outlook. Sure we can bracket off the New Atheist regime and their cronies, but that’s still a very small minority of the world’s population, limited mostly to the West. Evolution has been successful at leading most of the globe’s inhabitants to a false view of reality. Bravo evolution.

Third, if this is true we should never, and I mean never, never, ever, never, never, trust evolution to lead us to truth. This just signals that the priority of evolution is survival not a true understanding of reality. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Finally, if these points seem to follow, then we have to recognize that it is really a small group of highly educated scientists, almost exclusively in the West, who are the really enlightened ones who can see through evolution’s fog. They are our real saviors. Too bad for those who are less educated or who don’t reside in the West (aka. most of the world). We are the dunces, the masses, the knuckle-draggers, les misérables, clinging to our faith, who have yet to see the light. Bravo scientists.

Unless, the vast majority of humans who’ve ever lived, who are alive today, along with those who have yet to be born, might be right to trust their innate sense of the divine. Perhaps this impulse to believe that there is something more than the natural world is actually valid. Perhaps the sense of the divine is like many other beliefs that can never be proven through science, like that we aren’t living in the matrix, that the external world exists, and that the past is real.

I appreciate the desire of this study to seek to understand how religion has benefited humanity. It’s a breath of fresh air in comparison to recent allegations that religion poisons everything. But I might offer a word of caution, if the religious impulse is correct, if there is something beyond Nature, then that means we will never find a merely natural explanation, by definition, for the One to whom creation owes its existence.