Does Religion Have Adaptive Value?

Yesterday, I discussed some Christians who claim that evolutionary biology (at least in terms of species evolving into new species) is false. Today, I’ll briefly review an article by Dinesh D’Souza that attempts to show that evolutionary theory supports religion (“Desecrating Darwin’s Cathedral,” January 21, 2008).

D’Souza, who is so confident in his intellectual superiority that that he calls his opponents fools (as well as belligerent militants), quotes an article by David Sloan Wilson to criticize Richard Dawkins:

Wilson examines Dawkins’ central claim that religion is an obvious “delusion.” On the contrary, Wilson writes, religion is in general more adaptive for human communities than atheism. “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…They report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited.”

Wilson gives a telling example: The Jains of India seem to have bizarre religious habits. They won’t kill any creature, even cockroaches. They sometimes fast virtually unto death. They have been known to refuse contact with non-Jains. The Jains would easily satisfy Dawkins’ view of religion as a senseless delusion. And yet Wilson points out that the Jains are basically the Jews of India: they are one of the most successful economic communities in the world. The reason, he suggests, is that religious practices that seem weird and impractical to outsiders actually cultivate deep bonds of trust between Jains. This economic solidarity is crucial for a diaspora trading community that has built economic networks throughout Asia and around the world. What seems like a pointless delusion turns out to be eminently practical. From the evolutionist’s perspective–and in terms of the only currency that counts for a biologist–Jain practices have demonstrated “survival value.”

Let us first take these claims at face value. D’Souza argues himself into a tight corner. For if religion survives because of its “survival value” for humans, the way that, say, the eyeball survives because of its survival value, then there’s no reason to believe that religion is true. The truth of religion is simply beside the point. According to D’Souza’s argument, it simply doesn’t matter whether God exists, whether Jesus rose from the dead, whether people live beyond the death of the body, etc. Those are not the reasons that cultures actually accept religion, according to this line of thought. Instead, cultures accept religion, regardless of the truth of the claims of religion, because it helps its members to advance their lives and pass on their genes.

But D’Souza argues that, in particular, Christianity is true. I suppose he would counter that all sorts of other reasons (such as the design of the universe) independently prove the truth of religion in general and Christianity in particular. And yet his argument about the evolutionary “survival value” of religion clashes with any such additional claims. As the example of Jainism demonstrates, the alleged “survival value” of religion has nothing to do with the truth of particular claims of any specific religion. Instead, the “survival value” of religion has everything to do with the particular culture in which it arises. D’Souza’s argument cannot ultimately endorse Christianity; at most, it can endorse adopting the most successful religion in one’s culture. D’Souza’s argument is thus essentially one of cultural relativism.

By accepting the claim that beliefs, as well as biological traits, are subject to the evolutionary process, D’Souza cuts religion off from truth in another way. Human volition implies that people can accept ideas, true or false, helpful or harmful, based on whether and how they apply reason to the facts of reality. But the claim that beliefs, including religion beliefs, are merely a product of evolution comparable to the evolution of biological traits, implies that beliefs as such are a matter of convenience, not a matter of truth, and that one has no inherent connection with the other. D’Souza’s article thus reveals a deep strain of pragmatism, in which “truth” is not a matter of objective assessment but of workability, again subject to the variances of time and place. While some Christians argue against biological evolution on the grounds that blind chance cannot produce order, D’Souza implies that religious beliefs too are the product of blind chance. The reason that we have an eyeball is that it works. Likewise, the reason that we have religion is that it works, and nothing more needs to be said about it. It arises in an essentially deterministic universe.

D’Souza contradicts himself in another way. He constantly berates and mocks atheists for criticizing Christianity. He says that, if atheists really didn’t believe in God, then they wouldn’t write books condemning religion, just as we don’t write books condemning unicorns. But if D’Souza really believes that religion has “survival value,” then why does he write books and articles condemning atheists and proclaiming them fools? Biologists don’t condemn maladaptive mutations; they just explain how they work. Why does D’Souza rush to point out the inferiority of atheists, if their beliefs are analogous to a maladaptive mutation? Why does he care about the particular beliefs of any given individual, when evolution will win out? Perhaps the answer is that the One True Religion (i.e., Christianity) is destined to win out, and D’Souza is an instrument in God’s evolutionary plan.

However, the entire enterprise of interpreting beliefs from the framework of evolutionary biology is basically on the wrong track. Some of the analogies are interesting, such as the idea of a “meme,” if limited in scope. And of course there is an important sense in which ideas “evolve,” in that people teach ideas to others, who then often adapt the ideas. So too is there a feedback mechanism: ideas matter, and acting on different ideas will lead to different consequences. Beyond that the analogy breaks down. The point of evolutionary biology is that chance mutations either help or hurt the organism; the process is not guided by any intelligence. But ideas are the product of intelligence.

The practice of starving yourself to death is the product not of an “adaptive” belief but of a stupid one. Moreover, the practice is immoral, and it impedes, rather than advances, the interests of the Jains. If we’re going to talk about the Jains, why don’t we talk about the caste system in India, or the religious monarchies of ancient Egypt, or the primitive tribal religions, or the Islamic totalitarians? Adaptive, all?

Statistical surveys about the quality of lives of religious believers in the modern West say nothing about the truth or benefits of the religious beliefs (even ignoring possible methodological flaws of such surveys). American Christians are substantially secular, and their traditions generally include the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which glorify life on earth and the pursuit of earthly happiness. Moreover, many self-proclaimed atheists are taken with other false beliefs, such as those by Kant, Marx, Freud, and Derrida — beliefs that promote subjectivism and ultimately nihilism. I do not doubt that many Christians are happier than many Marxists, Freudians, and moral subjectivists. And that says exactly nothing about whether Christianity is true.

One thought on “Does Religion Have Adaptive Value?”

  1. I don’t think much of D’Souza (a lightweight even among neoconservatives) but he may have a point.

    According to evolution, creatures and species are successful to the extent they reproduce. And it does appear that religion is a particularly good way to encourage people to have children (although a few groups such as Shakers are celibate). Religion often teaches a forward looking attitude and religious groups tend to have more children. I’ve even read of studies that religious people fear death less than the irreligious (which might be a factor in their willingness to bring children into a troubled world).

    Europe is an example. With the decline of Christianity, many countries have a birth rate below the replacement rate. A revitilization of Christianity might be the only way to prevent Europe from being swamped by Moslems.

    This of course doesn’t prove that religion in general or any particular religion is true, but I find it interesting.

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