Why Do People Believe

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation oJ any-rhing imports nr.

— Christopher Hitchcns (282)

If God does not exist, and theology is empty, there has to be a purely natural reason that a great majority of human beings arc, and always have been, religious believers. And if faith is a purely natural phenomenon, then science has the job of providing its ultimate explanation. Not surprisingly, the new atheists have a vested interest in finding a scientific explanation of religious faith. If science can uncover a purely natural suite of reasons for why people believe, this discovery, at least as far as our critics are concerned, would spell the final defeat of theology. These days, therefore, they are understandably impressed by confident new proposals that the final explanation of faith, and indeed all religious behavior, will come not from theology but from evolutionary biology.

By faith, let us recall, the atheists mean "belief without evidence," "Faith is what credulity becomes/1 Sam Harris states, 'when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor (65), A theological explanation wo Llld claim that people have faith because at the core of their being, and not just in their minds, they have allowed rhemselves to be grasped by God* But Harris would find such an idea irrational. Richard Daw kins and Danie! Dennett agree with Harris, simply adding that Charles Darwin has given contemporary religious skeptics a powerful new tool—the idea of natural selection—to answer once and for all the question of why so many of us are willing to hand ourselves over to faith. Theological explanation is no longer needed.

Christopher Hitchens is happy to go along with the Darwinian account of faith, but his discussion of why most members of the human family are so weak as to believe in God or gods without evidence is neither evolutionist nor scientific, Hitchens is still so entranced by Freud and Marx that he settles for retreading the well-worn projection theory according to which religion is just wishful thinking and hence, as he puts it, "man-made, He fails to mention that as long ago as the sixth century BCE the poet Xenophanes surmised that we create the gods in our own image, and the claim has been made repeatedly, even by theologians. The Trappist mystic Thomas Mer-ron, for example, noted that our images of God tell us more about ourselves than about God: the medieval monk Meister Eckhart prayed for God to deliver him from God. For Merton, Eckhart, and other religious thinkers, however, the fact that religion always requires human imagination is completely consistent with the possibility that faith is fundamentally, and simultaneously, a response to the reality of God. Sam Harris claims that the root cause of religion is simply our enigmatic and abysmal propensity for "faith." But as we have already seen, faith may also be understood as the state of allowing oneself to be drawn into the timeless and endless depth of being, meaning, goodness, truth, and beauty that theists call Clod.

Richard Dawkins and his philosophical shadow Daniel Dennett, however, profess to have delivered us once and for all from theological accounts of faith. In the absence of God, they insist, only a scientific account of faith and its many religious expressions is plausible (Dawkins 163-207).:1 But wh ich of the many available sciences holds the key to what faith really is? Psycho logical and sociological theories of religion may have something to them, according to Hawkins, but these provide only proximate^ not ultimate explanations. Likewise, Michael Shermers speculation that the origin of religious faith can be found in the human need for pattern or meaning might be right, but it still fails to provide a fully naturalistic explanation of religion.-Finally the recent overblown attempts to explain the causes of religion in purely neu rose ienrific terms do not go deep enough to satisfy Daw kins either. Only evolutionary biology can provide an ultimate account of why people are religious, or as Robert Hinde has put it, why gods persist (Dawkins 166—72).^ Not long ago, most evolutionists were reluctant to study religion very closely, assuming rbar science was not wired ro comprehend the mysterious worlds of which religious people speak. Bur evolutionary scientists have recently gained more confidence, and beginning some thirty to forty years ago several ol them, most notably E+ O. Wilson of Harvard, began to suppose that religion, along with all other manifestations of life, must be studied biologically. More recently Dawkins has theorized that evolutionary biology can provide a thoroughgoing explanation of religious thought and behavior (166-72). He and many other evolutionists propose to "naturalize" our understanding of religion in terms of Darwins evolutionary theory. Applying Occams razor, they wonder whv anyone would ever resort to religious and theological accounts of faith i( simpler, natural ones will do,1

In order to explain religious faith biologically, one must make two broad claims. First, human behavioral patterns and routine cognltional operations are inherited, in the same way that our basic anatomy is. Second, inheritance consists of populations of genes migrating from one generation to another Genes, however, are spread out among related organisms, so that the idea of evolutionary fitness (which means the probability of reproducing) applies less to an individual organism than to the wider pool of genes shared among kin. This idea is known as *inclusive fitness," and it is fundamental to most evolutionary accounts of religion,s

The Darwinian psychologists and anthropologists whom Daw kins most admires claim that the human brain has aided the passing on of human genes only because it evolved to perform a variety of tasks essential to survival as far back as 2 mil-

Hon or more years ago. Human beings today have inherited a brain and pattern of responses that evolved long ago under circumstances markedly different from those people face today. But what is most puzzling and irritating to Dawkins is that our brains somewhere along the line developed a tendency to believe without evidence, and to create wild religious ideas, embellishing them with senseless rituals. To Dawkins religious faith is annoyingly antiquated and evil (308). But at the same time it is a stubbornly durable human tendency, and its curious persistence requires an explanation, especially at a time in human history when science should have cleansed culture of this huge embarrassment. Psychology and neuroscience are not enough to account for it, so we must dig deeper.

Since God does not exist and therefore cannot be the ultimate explanation of anything, how are we to make sense of faith and its persistence scientifically? We have no choice but to look for an evolutionary account. Religious habits are so deeply rooted in human mammals and are so prevalent that they need an explanation that goes deeper than culture. Perhaps, then, religion can best be explained in evolutionary terms as having promoted the survival and transmission of human genes during the course of our evolution. So gene survival, not God,, is the ultimate explanation of religion, If our genes are to make it into future generations, they need to manufacture human organisms with just those traits that will reliably replicate them, and apparently one of these traits has been the attraction of our species to the God delusion and other fabrications of faith (Dawkins 164-65).

This evolutionary explanation of faith seems persuasive to many scientific naturalists today. However, as Dawkins correctly acknowledges, the exact way in which religion promotes survival is not quite so straightforward. Although religion may at times aid individual, group,, and genetic survival directly, at other times it does not. Yet people remain religious anyway, even where faith fails to be adaptive. Some religious phenomena, such as celibacy and martyrdom, are not adaptive. In these cases, can the Darwinian view of life still be rescued by such evolutionary notions as kin selection? Perhaps the altruistic sacrifice of an individual organism's reproductive opportunities can have the effect of enhancing the survivability of a whole population of genes that the altruist shares with its relatives, group, or species.

I his explanation is tempting, but Dawkins suspects that kin selection and other factors associated w ith gene-survival theory are also too simple to account for faith (172-79), They do not explain adequately the arbitrariness and utter insanity of so many religious fantasies that people believe in without any evidence. So how is the evolutionist going to account for the persistence of gods in an age of sciences Doesnti the evolutionary explanation of religion break down completely at this point? Apparently realizing that it does, although without admitting it, Dawkins hands over the task of fully naturalizing religion to other experts, one of whom is the anthropologist Pascal Boyer.0 The effect of passing the buck to Boyer is deeply ironic. After promising to provide a fully naturalistic account of religious faith, Dawkins ends up breaking almost completely away from Darwin. Together with Boyer he speculates that the brain does not have any specifically religious character after all. So, then, what is religious faith? it is an accidental by-product of cerebral systems that evolved for other purposes. Religious faith is lLa misfiring of something useful" a Darwinian mistake! Here then we leave Darwin almost completely behind (188). The only important evolutionary thing left to be said, as Dawkins theorizes, is that religion is like a virus—parasitic on cognitive systems that had earlier been selected because of a survival value that had nothing to do with their capacity to be carriers of faith.

One such cognitive system was the ability of our remote biological ancestors to detect predators. Organisms that lacked predator-detecting mechanisms could easily have been killed and eaten, so they had a low probability of surviving. On the not for the deceptive way in which religious belief made our human ancestors suckers for gene survival, even critics of faith would nor exist. Maybe we should show much more respect for the noble lies of religious belief than Dawkins does.

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