A faith instinct?

December 12, 2009

Today’s episode (December 11, 2009) of CBC’s The Current, featured an interview with Nicholas Wade (www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/200912/20091211.html), a Science Reporter for The New York Times  and author of The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures.  Wade raises some very important questions about the evolution of religion.  Somewhat controversially, he argues that faith provides evolutionary advantages for the human species, and therefore we are genetically hardwired to embrace religion.

In the interview, Wade is somewhat critical of Richard Dawkins’ view that we are not necessarily genetically programmed for faith, but for obedience.  Dawkins argues that an evolutionary advantage is provided by “listening to our elders” and this tendency manifests itself in supplicating oneself before religious spokespeople.  Wade counters Dawkins’ position by arguing  that the survival of religion over a long period of time indicates that it is not just an accidental outgrowth of deference to authority; for religion to be selected by evolutionary processes, asserts Wade, it must be beneficial for humanity.  Dawkins’ failure to recognize this, in Wade’s view, is due to his prejudicial attitude that religion is detrimental to society.

The benefit that religion offers for humanity, according to Wade, is that a conjuration of spiritual forces leads people to emotionally involve themselves in a group and to defend it, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives. People need (want?) to believe in something “bigger than themselves”, and, as a result, faith in the supernatural helps to increase the size of social formations beyond what would have been possible without religion, enhancing reproductive success.  Furthermore, religion enables certain values that encourage social integration to be enforced and greater cohesion and group survival becomes possible.

While I find Wade’s arguments fascinating, there are two main problems with them that can be identified.  First of all, there is a difference between the social effects of a religious belief and the belief itself.  Just because a religion embraces principles that are beneficial for society (thou shall not kill, for example), this does not mean that the opposition to killing, in itself, is religious.  The essence of religion is the belief in the supernatural, and this might prohibit or encourage killing depending upon the context (Islam, for example, maintains that adulterers should be stoned to death),  Wade’s assumption that religion is “beneficial” leads him to neglect one of its major characteristics – its use by those in power to con people into accepting their subordinate position. Shamans, one of the earliest religious figures, for example, use their “spiritual status” to extract “gifts” from their followers. 

The second problem with Wade’s arguments is the fallacy that because religion has existed for a long period of time, it will always exist.  This is an anti-evolutionary viewpoint.  To examine religion from an evolutionary perspective, one has to look at historical trends, and how one form of consciousness emerges out of another.  Although religious belief continues to exist, it is becoming much weaker than in the past (even expressing sentiments like I am today, for  example, would have been punishable by death in the past).  It is highly likely, in fact, that religion provided a survival advantage in the past, but that scientific progress has now made it detrimental to our survival.  Wade misleadingly makes the comparison between language and religion; while language is obviously a necessity for survival, belief in the supernatural appears to be superfluous to existence. 

It is important to recognize that, just because something existed for a long period of time, and therefore provided a survival advantage, this will not always be the case.   Slavery and feudal relations, for example, existed for thousands of years, but today they are either completely rejected (slavery) or regarded as an archaic historical relic (the British aristocracy).  Religious beliefs, because they cannot provide any evidence to support their existence, are gradually being rejected.  If one also accepts that there is a connection between economic exploitation and religion, it is likely that once class relations disappear, so will religion.