Darwin and Religion
Whenever I see a prevalent human behavior, I go to Darwin.
That’s probably because I think Darwin was the Greatest Scientist Who Ever Lived. You can argue with me on that, but I’m sticking to my story.
In these pages, I will keep coming back to Darwin. I will argue that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection is relevant not only in the Earthly biological realm, but also in many processes throughout the Universe. This will be a core theme upon which we will build our ultimate argument for God, in time.
So when I hear that 84% of humanity identifies with a religion, my first question is: “What evolutionary advantage did religion offer to our ancestors?"
Because if religious thinking didn’t offer a big advantage, it should have disappeared long ago. Instead, religion continues to exert a powerful draw on us. The Homo Sapiens brain seems wired for religious thinking; we can’t resist it.
I’ve already mentioned the obvious benefits of professing religious belief: a moral code to live by, a sense of purpose and certainty of one's place in the Universe, possibly an afterlife better than this one, and social acceptance, protection, and support from the tribe.
That last one – social acceptance, protection, and support from the tribe – must have been a huge deal 50,000 years ago. The nascent Homo Sapiens only had two advantages in the arms race between predator and prey: lacking sharp claws and speed, our ancestors had to rely on stone tools and social cohesion for survival.
And what better mechanism for maintaining social cohesion than a shared set of beliefs, expressed openly through ritual?
In this case, the Darwinian selection is not “natural” in the strict sense but cultural: behave like everyone else in the tribe and get the tribe’s protection and support; behave differently and risk banishment, an almost certain death sentence.
Religious behavior has another, less obvious advantage: it’s energy conserving. You don’t have to expend a lot of mental effort to decide how to behave. Just look around. See how the others around you are behaving. Then mimic them. This is the essence of Robert Cialdini’s Social Proof, and explains a lot of the actions of your fellow apes.
We can also speculate that there was rampant cheating going on throughout the ages – people professing allegiance to their tribe’s customs and religion, but secretly not having any of it. How else to explain today’s atheists, free thinkers, and Libertarians?
We carry today the genes of individuals who survived long enough to reproduce. The genes for religious thinking have been passed along because they gave our ancestors an important reproductive advantage. Ironic, isn’t it? The much maligned (in certain US states) Theory of Evolution being used to explain the orthodox belief in Creationism. But there it is.
The Atheist’s Dilemma
In our search for God, it helps to start with the alternate explanation – that there is none.
The strongest argument against God is that we see no evidence for a supernatural force in the Universe. Much as we want to believe in miracles, we can find no force that changes outcomes away from the statistically predicted distribution.
This concept of “statistical distribution of outcomes” is where our Homo Sapiens brain fails us. We observe unusual outcomes – cancers disappearing, sports teams eking out spectacular wins, children surviving great falls – and our brains rush to attribute the effect to a cause. “It must have happened because someone or something caused it to happen,” we reason.
It is actually sobering to find out how many cancers appear and disappear all by themselves, through no medical or divine intervention. It just happens. Plot them on a curve and you get a distribution. Nothing supernatural about that. Except that instead of looking at all the bad outcomes – where the patient died – we focus on the good outcomes, where the patient miraculously recovered.
The idea that it might all happen according to a statistical distribution is not a thought process that helped our ancestors gather food and avoid predators 100,000 years ago. It is therefore missing from our programming. But it’s how the Universe rolls.
Thus the Atheist says: We simply don’t see the “hand of God” mucking about in the Universe, changing things in statistically significant ways. Therefore God does not exist.
The Atheist has an even more powerful argument: Bad Things Happen. These bad things, the Holocaust being the most often-cited, are so horrible as to be incompatible with a Universe tended by a divine love. If God knew about the Holocaust and had the capacity to prevent it but chose not to, then we have a problem. We have to give up some aspect of God: either He is not all-knowing, or not all-powerful, or not all-loving.
How canonical authorities explain this illustrates how deep the problem goes: the Church can’t accept that God may not be omniscient or omnipotent, so they try to sell us on some vague “God’s plan” that is beyond our understanding or questioning. But that leaves us with a God that is adamantly not all-loving. This god is mean and capricious, more consistent with the Old Testament and the pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans.
Do as you will, but this is not a god that I choose to worship.
But as I mentioned earlier, we are now left in an awfully bleak and desolate place. Life sucks, and then you die. There is no purpose. There are no commandments for how we should live, or reason to make the world a better place.
I have searched for a path to the kind of God that we think ought to exist, a path that does not contradict any scientific or mathematical understanding, yet preserves and affirms God’s all-loving nature. And I think I have found it. However, as you will see in the following pages, we will have to give up something in the equation, although you’ll probably not miss it.
To make it all work, we will have to give up God’s omnipotence.