Monday, July 09, 2007

Religion As Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation

I have written thrice (here, here, and here) about Richard Dawkins's apoplectic views on religion. Dawkins -- in a nutshell -- views religion as a bad thing because, in his view, (a) many bad things are done its name and (b) it is anti-scientific. Now, (a) does not prove that religion causes people to do bad things (people just do bad things), nor does (b) prove that religion is anti-scientific (many religious persons are and have been excellent scientists).

Now comes an article by David Sloan Wilson ("Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Relgion,", July 4, 2007). Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and professor of anthropology and biology at Binghamton University, assesses Dawkins's The God Delusion. Wilson begins:
Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin’s Cathedral [link added: ED] I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.
Later, after summarizing his points of agreement with Dawkins, Wilson turns to the evidence for religion as an evolutionary adaptation that helps groups to survive and thrive. He observes, for example, that
On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.
Wilson writes, later in the article, that
In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken. By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do.
What religions do (on the whole) is to cause their adherents to live more positive and productive lives, as Wilson notes in the passage quoted earlier.

Now, this says nothing one way or the other about the truth of religious belief. But it does underscore the irrationality and unscientific nature of the virulent anti-religious emissions of Richard Dawkins and his ilk. Religion is, in the main, a beneficial social institution.