I know I’m late getting to this article on “Darwin’s God” that was published last weekend…but I’ve been busy, OK? And to be honest, when I took a look at at, the first couple of paragraphs turned me off. These are silly rationalizations for god-belief.
Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, Âbelief in hope beyond reasonÂ Â whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. ÂWhy do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?Â asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-Ã -terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. ÂIf you have negative sentiments toward religion,Â he tells them, Âthe box will destroy whatever you put inside it.Â Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driverÂs license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.
If they donÂt believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?
Errm, but I don’t cross my fingers during turbulence. I don’t pray, either. My heart rate might go up, but otherwise I regard it with helpless equanimity, and I don’t find solace in rituals or magical incantations. So I’m already predisposed to be disagreeable with his premises.
As for the “magic box”, isn’t there an obvious explanation that doesn’t involve god-belief? A strange man with a strange device asks you to do something that he says has an element of risk; you don’t have to believe that there is anything supernatural involved in order to hesitate before committing anything valuable to the test. That hesitation says nothing about belief in religion or the supernatural; if we’re afraid of anything, it’s trusting the crazy bearded guy who claims to have a magic box.
The rest of the article is a longish but not very deep discussion of two competing explanations for religion: the spandrel explanation, that it is a side effect of some other property of the brain that is useful, and the adaptations explanation, that religion confers a direct benefit on an individual or group. You can put me solidly in the spandrel camp, since I don’t find the adaptationist rationalizations at all persuasive. They rely on the valid observation that these kinds of non-productive activities impose a cost on the individual, coupled to the erroneous assumption that selection would purge any less-than-optimal solution from the population, therefore there must be an advantage that maintains it.
There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.
Many people assign a high personal value to religious belief, so they find the idea that it is an accidental by-product objectionable, and embrace the idea that it has some specific purpose (“purposelessness” is a kind of dirty word to a lot of people, for some reason). So let’s strip that loaded term “religion” out of the equation, and put in something equivalent that won’t have quite the resonance to most of us.
Say, “Civil War reenactments“.
It’s pretty much the same phenomenon as religion. Groups get together and follow repeated behavioral scripts; they argue in great detail and with great heat over fine points; many have much of their identity tied up in the philosophical underpinnings of the practice; people invest significant amounts of money and time in the practice; and to outsiders, the whole thing looks rather ridiculous, even when we can appreciate the fervor and the spectacle.
And yet, I haven’t seen anyone try to argue that Civil War re-enactors must have had a historical selective advantage, or that there must be a Civil War reenactment gene, or that something so costly must have a hard-wired biological basis. We’re reasonably comfortable with saying it has a cultural source, that there’s a biological substrate that drives people to be social and associate in community activities, but that the specific patterns in which this drive expresses itself, whether it is in parading in wheatfields with old rifles loaded with blanks, or in standing up and sitting down in pews while someone hectors you about hellfire, are not derivable from your genes. Well, actually, some people do try to argue that the latter pattern of religious custom is built into your biology—I find them about as credible as I would someone who claims the Confederate battle flag is etched onto their cortex.
The kinds of arguments made in this article are the same kind of privileging of the idea of religion—acting as if it were something special, that it has biological attributes that make it unique and, as one of the people consulted suggests, could even be a mark of a god’s design. We see the same astonishing commitment to the irrational in sports fans, or Dungeons and Dragons nerds, or stamp collectors, though; I’m hoping some evolutionary psychologist somewhere will give me a wonderful story about how those manias are the product of millennia of selection.
Greg Laden makes another interesting point about the article: it’s a subtle smear against atheists. It sets up a false conflict between the noisy “neo-atheists” and these other people carrying on a “quiet and illuminating debate” within science. It also tries to set up atheists as the weird people who are fighting their natural impulses.
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.
Again, Atran is generalizing his own peculiarities to the whole of humanity. I have none of these conflicts he describes at all; I’m not tempted by magical thinking, I don’t have superstitious warding rituals, I’ve faced the death of family members and not felt even a twinge of religious wishful thinking. Now you could argue, I suppose, that I am some unusual mutant with a defective god gene (I’m an X-Man, with the power of Godlessness!), but I find it much more plausible that I, and many others like me, have simply escaped the cultural indoctrination that still afflicts Atran. It’s no less real for being the product of ubiquitous repetition, but neither is it inescapable. We are not predetermined to believe in the nonsensical claims of religion—we have to have them dunned into us.
I’ve also avoided the urge to recreate the battle of Antietam in my backyard. That’s another allele I seem to have avoided, although I suppose if I’d been brought up to obsess over the War of Northern Aggression I might feel an occasional itch.