The evolution of religion

November 20, 2009

On November 17, 2009, TV Ontario’s “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin featured a panel discussion entitled “Religions: Old, New, Borrowed and Blue”.  The participants included Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto; Lorna Dueck, the Executive Producer and host of Listen Up TV - a Christian take on news and current events; Gretta Vosper, the founder of the oxymoronic Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity; Gerald Filson, the Director of the Office of External Affairs for the Baha’i Community of Canada; and Shabir Ally, the president of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre (http://www.tvo.org).

While the program’s pretence was to provide some insights into the “evolution of religion”, it turned out to be a shameless promotion of irrationality and silliness.  Religious evolution, after all, is a scientific and anti-religious idea -evolutionary processes negate the idea of an all-powerful and all-knowing “Creator”.  But, to discuss this idea, The Agenda invited four overt believers in unsubstantiated supernatural forces in the universe.  The one, supposedly scientific voice, is a psychology professor who makes nonsensical and vague references to “religious truths”, argues that no empirical claims existed before 1500 A.D. (ignoring the entire body of knowledge accumulated by the ancient Greeks and other pre-modern cultures), and thinks that artistic sensibilities and religious beliefs are similarly “irrational” (failing to understand that while the response to art is emotional and not rational, it does not constitute an irrational belief in a highly improbable “Creator” of the universe).  At the end of the program, Peterson even misleadingly compares the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina to the actions a vengeful God.  After justifiably accosting Gretta Vosper (a Christian who does not follow Christ) for making “incoherent statements”, Peterson opines: “One of the clear messages in the Old Testament is that if you’re not honest and you don’t walk a careful path then God will come along and wipe you out,  and as much as we might not like to like a God like that and think that is an archaic way of looking at things, I would say that’s exactly what happened to New Orleans, because people think that it was an Act of God so to speak that destroyed the city; it was a hurricane but it wasn’t a hurricane; it was the fact that New Orleans is an unbelievably corrupt city and no one paid any attention to the dykes and millions of dollars of public money were spirited into people’s pockets”.

Although one would understand why Christian (both fundamentalist and nebulous), Baha’i and Muslim representatives would embrace fairy tales, it is disturbing that a clinical psychologist and psychology professor would make such assertions.  In fact, no member of the panel seems to understand the difference between a belief in God and whether or not there is evidence to support the existence of the supernatural.  Ally even baldly states that there is such a thing as the “ontological reality of God”.  To support this assertion he relies upon the “first mover” hypothesis about the origins of the universe (that a “Creator” is needed to explain the existence of matter).  It should be noted that such a view contradicts the first law of thermodynamics – that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just transformed.  Therefore, one must assume that matter has always existed since the “creation” of matter is not possible.

The “evolution of religion” is an important topic of scientific study. If we are to assume that the apes and other pre-human lifeforms have not developed religion, we need to understand what human characteristics led to the emergence of a belief in the supernatural and its evolution.  We can see, for example, the transition from Animism to monotheistic religions involved the change from concern about controlling nature to an attempt to control human behaviour.  Christianity evolved out of Judaism as humanity needed to make the transition from tribal social relations (an eye for an eye) to societies determined by class relations (turn the other cheek, don’t rebel against the existing order).   Islamic texts, because they evolved out of Animism, not Judaism, still encourage a number of barbaric practices (such as cutting off limbs for stealing and stoning people to death for adultery), unlike the lessons of “peace and forgiveness” drawn from the New Testament.  This episode of “The Agenda”, because it is pandering to religious groups and tacitly assumes that God exists, cannot shed any light on this subject.

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