Religion and Evolutionary Biology
I have recently been engaged in a brief conversation on Medium with Mitchell Diamond, author of Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionary Biology of Religion. It began with my response to this article of his. It isn’t important to have read that to understand what follows, as it was discussing some of the finer points of the debate from the evolutionary perspective. It does, however, bring up once again the big question of religion and Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary biology is one of the main stalwarts of the modern ‘scientific’ worldview, which runs something along these lines. The universe began with the Big Bang. In the early stages there was no life or consciousness. Eventually galaxies, stars, planets formed. Inexplicably, living organisms emerged at some point out of inorganic matter. There was still nothing like what we moderns would call consciousness, which therefore must have ‘evolved’ at some later stage through natural processes; it must be a by-product of the brain. At some point in the distant past human brains decided that there was a supernatural world, inhabited by various beings: deities, angels, demons, and so on. Since these do not exist, science has to explain how such illusions arose and, given that they are illusions, why they have persisted.
One example of such thinking is Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: the Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors¹. The publisher’s blurb on the back says: “Why are there religious beliefs in all cultures? Do they have features in common and why does religion persist in the face of science? Pascal Boyer shows how experimental findings in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology are now providing precise answers to these general questions, and providing, for the first time, real answers to the question: Why do we believe?” There is also praise from one of the usual suspects, Steven Pinker: “In these pages, Pascal Boyer offers a deep, ingenious, and insightful analysis of one of the deepest mysteries of the human species”.
Mitchell Diamond also subscribes to this viewpoint; in his most recent response to me he said that “God(s) are a creation of the human mind”. He is therefore engaged in evolutionary biology’s attempt to understand how such illusions arose and persisted.
This statement is presented as a fact. I hope it is obvious to any reader, however, that it is merely an opinion, expressing a philosophical viewpoint. He tacitly acknowledges this because he continues “but god cannot be empirically proven”. If something cannot be proven one way or the other, then the question being addressed is not a scientific one. If a philosophical opinion is presented as a scientific fact, then it is rather a matter of faith, therefore tantamount to theology. It is one of the major errors of modern ‘science’ that what is actually a matter of faith is often presented as fact, seemingly without the scientists concerned noticing what they are doing.
The scientific worldview described above has emerged only in recent times, a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. For thousands of years previously, the religious worldview dominated. It is reasonable to ask therefore whether modern science is as true as its advocates believe it to be, or whether it is a temporary aberration.
Many critics are beginning to say something along those lines. I would argue that there is much wrong with the conventional ‘scientific’ worldview, but the most important issue is the problem of consciousness. According to orthodoxy, consciousness must have somehow emerged from the brain, but no one has any idea how this is possible, hence the term the ‘Hard Problem’. This has led philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Philip Goff to write books with challenging and provocative titles like Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False² and Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness³. Goff believes that some form of panpsychism is the only possible philosophical solution to the difficulty.
Panpsychism is the view that everything in the universe is in some sense conscious. (This is not the place to go into a discussion of exactly what that might mean, and the different interpretations.) This was, of course, the viewpoint of many, perhaps all, ancient religious traditions; they taught that mind came before matter, even that mind creates matter, therefore that there is nothing in the universe that is not some form of consciousness. Neither is this viewpoint restricted to these spiritual traditions; it can also be found among modern scientists, for example, Professor of Physics Amit Goswami, who wrote The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World⁴. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that evolutionary biologists are, on the whole, fairly clueless about the implications of quantum physics for our understanding of reality.)
This discussion enters a whole different level when we go beyond the problem of consciousness, and consider the existence of supernatural beings. All religions believe in them, which is why modern physicalist science rejects all religion out of hand, and feels the need to find explanations for it. In my first response to Mitchell Diamond, I said: “The one thing evolutionary biologists never seem to consider is that religion, or at least some of it, was true for ancient peoples because it reflected their experience”. By this I meant that these people were literally aware of the reality of the spirit world. I was surprised, therefore, when I received Diamond’s response: “I agree, but I’m not sure what that has to do with evolutionary biologists’ understanding”. I then replied: “Evolutionary biologists seem to assume that religious/spiritual ideas are false, and therefore feel the need to explain how they arose and survived during the process of evolution. I was arguing that such ideas arose because they were expressions of the direct experience of early peoples”. I was thinking along the same lines as Jonathan Black who, in a book describing the beliefs of spiritual traditions and esoteric secret societies down the ages, wrote: “In the ancient world experience of spirits was so strong that to deny the existence of the spirit world would not have occurred to them. In fact it would have been almost as difficult for people in the ancient world to deny the existence of spirit as it would for us to decide not to believe in the table, the book, in front of us”⁵.
Diamond then responded: “Yes, religious ideas were expressions and experiences of early people, but I do feel that still begs the question of why they arose and persisted”. He obviously has a different understanding of the word ‘experience’ from me. I obviously know that the senses are not completely reliable, and that hallucinations are possible. In general, however, if I have an experience of something, then that is the only proof I need of its reality. A scientist explaining to me on theoretical grounds that what I saw with my own eyes was an illusion is not going to convince me. Nor would it have persuaded, I hope, ancient peoples.
The real question is not how religious ideas arose and persisted; it is rather why, in modern times, we are no longer so directly aware of the spiritual realms, and find it reasonable to reject them. My explanation is that, in the distant past, ego-consciousness was not so highly developed as it is now, was not separated from the realms of the unconscious psyche and their inhabitants. For whatever reason, ego-consciousness has now developed and strengthened to the point where we are cut off from these realms most of the time. They are accessible, however, in altered states of consciousness. Entering such states may be the best way we have in modern times of refuting the ‘scientific’ worldview.
The idea that matter precedes consciousness can be called the bottom-up approach, and the reverse top-down. Gerald R. Baron has been writing an excellent series on Medium discussing this theme.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Vintage, 2002
2. Oxford University Press, 2012
3. Rider, 2019
4. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995
5. The Secret History of the World, Quercus, 2010, p58