Darwin’s God

There is a good piece in the New York Times about scientific study of religion. As the author rightly states, those trying to understand religion are probably much more likely to find something interesting, than the neo-atheists who are vociferously clamoring for its dissolution (“Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate.”) It should be clear to everyone that trying to understand religion through careful scientific study is by far more productive than complaining about it.

The article delineates two basic understandings in the current evolutionary study of religion (evolution seems to be the only important perspective used at the moment to study religion): the adaptationists, who claim that religion is a useful adaptation (foremost among them is David Sloan Wilson); and those who claim religion is an (unfortunate) byproduct of other more useful features of the human mind (this is Scott Altran’s view). I do not wish to take sides at the moment, tho i find the more positive view more likely and more fruitful. Rather, i would like to suggest that these studies must go even further.

It is good to study religion and figure out what it does and why it exists; but this theoretical knowledge will only prove useful once it is put to practical use, namely to start fixing religion. Science will only be able to overcome religion and the patently false beliefs attendent to it when it stoops down to study this gigantic phenomenon and then improve upon it. Science must discover what purposes religion serves and then concoct a better ersatz, one that will solve the problems that religion does – only in a better and less dangerous way.

If science carefully studies religion so as to offer similar but intelligently designed alternatives, only then will it manage to free us from our religions. This freedom must, however, be bought at the cost of science not destroying, but only helping to improve religion. Science must humble itself and become the handmaid of religion, though one that will only do what is reasonable. The deluded belief that religion will disappear if only the ‘neo-atheists’ cry loud enough is no better founded than that of the priests of Baal who attempted to get their deity to rain down fire upon their sacrifice by their own displays of vocal prowess. Religion is not going to disappear, but it can be carefully re-worked so as to still perform its useful functions but without many of its attendant dangers.

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5 Responses to “Darwin’s God”

  1. >>Science must discover what purposes religion serves and then concoct a better ersatz, one that will solve the problems that religion does — only in a better and less dangerous way.

  2. Oops. It looks like the angled-brackets cut my comment off.

    ‘Science must discover what purposes religion serves and then concoct a better ersatz, one that will solve the problems that religion does — only in a better and less dangerous way.’

    1. Religion seems to enfold a variety of purposes, sometimes even conflicting ones. It might be the mess, the vast enfoldance of religion, the sense in which it forms a vast, embracing culture, which a ‘better ersatz’ would miss — just by being better.

    2. Maybe religion doesn’t aim to solve problems (which we could isolate and solve more efficiently). Maybe it just grows up around the more practical affairs of life the way household furniture and decorations do.

  3. both comments are valid. as for 1: ill accept multiple, conflicting purposes as long as they are made clear so that we can work with them, a mess can be aesthetic, but it is never very useful – of course, u might not want to define religion as useful: i suppose that’s where well disagree

    for 2: i like the sound of the ‘household furniture’ analogy, though i must confess i don’t understand its _meaning_… i take it that if religion still exists its that it _does_ something right. and i want to figure out what that is.

  4. You mentioned Heidegger in an earlier post. Maybe there is something about religion which resists being useful. Maybe religion opens a world of meaning for us, has this power, precisely because it is and only so long as it remains useless. Is this opening useful to us even though it cannot be made merely useful, that is, even though — and perhaps just because — it cannot fall under our power without ceasing to be useful?

    When religion is thought of as a form of life, as a collection of furniture and artwork which supports and nourishes a way of going along in the world, I want to say: ‘Yes, it is useful; it adds a layer of richness to life — no, it accrues as a layer of richness of life around how we go along — which it may be a loss to dislodge, all the more in the name of utility, sanitation — in the name of what might end up being merely a shallower, less cultured, less colourful form of life.’

    But then again I was not raised in a religion, am not attracted to religion, prefer philosophy and literature and simplicity. So I can’t say; perhaps a lot of really nasty ways of going on accrue religion around them to so that the layer of meaning suffocates as much as not or maybe more so. But then — isn’t what is wanted not a critique of religion but ethics, a critique of how we actually go on? For if we went on well, then religion would merely be the deepening and celebration of our health, our virtue, our contentment.

    Maybe what religion does right is add weight, texture, length, resonance to how we go on in life.

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