Naturalistic Accounts of Religion

Some atheists think that a successful naturalistic or sociological account of religion would invalidate the claims of the religion. Naturalistic accounts of culture include Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, written by Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson, which is regarded as the bible of sociobiology. In it he advances an account of the biological origins of morality, religion and other cultural behaviours, which was also to some degree discussed by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man. Broadly, this explanation of morality and religion is encapsulated in the concept of “group selection” in which natural selection “operates at group level…when it affects two or more members of a lineage group as unit”[i]. This basically means that the alleles (variations of genes) and behaviours of a particular group will be selected for according to the advantage it gives to that group for survival and reproduction (as a whole). “Kin selection” focuses on the biological selection of altruistic acts toward relatives.

In terms of religion, Wilson proposes that it is biologically instrumental in adapting to a particular environment.[ii] Emphasis is particularly placed on the benefit of religion (by group selection) in competition and warfare between tribes. Since religion serves the “most vital interests of the group” in situations of tribal conflict (which were very common especially in earlier human existence), it would increase the genetic fitness of the individuals in the group if everybody were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the group in warfare. This will (by the individuals to sacrifice their lives) is brought about by religion, because “to sanctify a procedure… is to certify it as beyond question and imply punishment for anyone who dares to contradict it.”[iii] Another aspect of religion, which increases the genetic fitness of individuals who adhere to it, is its regulatory nature (identified by Henri Bergson). Any set of traditions is better than none, since imperfect order is better than no order at all. The weight (or unquestionable nature because of fear of punishment) carried by sanctification ensures that the subjects obey the decrees commanded and so an orderly, and to some extent, harmonious society develops.[iv] This will increase the genetic fitness of the group well above that of a chaotic society and so will be selected for by natural selection.

It is first important to note that evolutionary “just-so” stories like these are completely speculative and have no empirical evidence to support them. Thus, they cannot claim the status of scientific discovery. But this doesn’t mean that they are invalid, out of hand. It just means that they are closer to philosophy of science than strictly science. Coming up with evolutionary just-so stories is extremely easy especially when there is little potential for them to be empirically verified in some way. If there are moral inclinations among animals, this does not support a naturalistic origin story of morality. To say that morality occurs in nature does not give evidence for the claim that morality developed through evolution ( or only through evolution). For example, Freud believed that religion developed as a result of tribal father-killing traditions (or something), but showing that religious impulses are present in animal populations most certainly does not give evidence for this or any sociobiological account of religion, because that moral and other cultural behaviours are found among animal populations is compatible with many other theories, both scientific and metaphyiscal. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that these theories were established by the highest quality of scientific evidence.  Why would this imply that any given religion is false? Why should the fact that religious impulses developed naturalistically mean that those religious impulses give us wrong information? After all, our eyes, ears and all our sensory faculties also developed naturalistically, but that doesn’t mean that our sensory equipment does not give us correct information about the world. Moreover, why does the fact that religion has biological and social usefulness mean that it is constituted solely by biology and social factors? It’s irrational to think that social and biological usefulness is all there is to religion, simply on the basis that it is socially and biologically useful. Thirdly, the argument commits the genetic fallacy. The origin of some system of truth claims is irrelevant to whether it is true or not. How you come to believe something is irrelevant to whether it is true or not.

The only way you would be able to show that the naturalistic accounts of religion invalidate religion is if religion denies that its revelations could have proceeded through mechanisms produced by evolutionary conditioning. Does Christianity or any biblical writers deny this? Not that I know of. The idea that revelation must proceed to us through some non-natural mechanism in the mind is a much more Platonic or Greek idea than a Judeo-Christian one. So the notion that our religious impulses developed naturalistically or sociologically is perfectly compatible with the events at Mount Sinai or the events at Golgotha. The biblical writers clearly maintain that God communicates with human beings miraculously, not naturalistically. You may say that if our religious impulses developed naturalistically, then all religious claims came from the same origin and thus have the same claim to truth. But what would be different about Christianity would be the veracity of its miracles and that God communicated with people miraculously. This then becomes an issue of whether miracles can occur and not how our religious intuitions developed. And also, even if you could show that the naturalistic account contradicted religion’s own account of itself, there is no reason to prefer the naturalistic account over the religious account, since as we said, it does not represent a scientific discovery and is at the moment no more than a philosophical theory about human nature ( and a philosophical theory with no empirical evidence and not even philosophical arguments to support it). Nor can sociobiological theories piggyback on the evidence for evolution more generally. Groups don’t have genes; individuals do, so the genetic evidence for evolution cannot be used for group selection. There is no ( and cannot be) any fossil record which supports group selection, because the traits supposedly being selected for are not physical and cannot be identified in a fossil. The small similarities between human societies and animal societies cannot by itself bear the burden of evidence, but even if it could, many other hypotheses, which require a less grand assumptions, are also compatible with this fact.

[i] Wilson, Edward O., Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. (Londen: Belknap, 1975)  p. 106

[ii] Ibid., p. 560

[iii] Ibid.,p. 561 Rappaport,1971 ( as cited by Wilson)

[iv] Ibid., p. 561-562, Bergson,1935, (as cited by Wilson)