An Atheist Defends Religion

July 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm 1 comment

Maybe your eye would be caught like mine when I saw this title in the bookstore. The atheist in question is Bruce Sheiman and the subtitle of his book is: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than Without It.

Also, like me, perhaps, you’re not only curious how another atheist would defend this thesis, but whether our secret, or maybe not so secret, deepest, darkest fear could be true: Is humanity better off with religion than without it? We can all recite some pretty gory events even in Chritianity’s history, e.g., upwards of 50,000 burnt at the stake in the Dark and Middle Ages for heresy, blasphemy, and other offenses against God–justice provided courtesy of the Church.

In our evolutionary past, yes, religion did have survival value for the species. It wouldn’t just be a spandrel–an evolutionary by-product rather than an adaptation in it’s own right–given it’s universal spread. If religion wasn’t an advantageous adaptation surely there would be one or more cultures somewhere in the world without it. But it is universal.

Bruce Sheiman indicates the various benefits, social and psychological, that religion can give to it’s participants. I think most of us would have to give religion and it’s followers that–they do derive some benefits from it. At the risk of over simplifying Sheiman’s work much of what he says seems to be compatible with the idea that believers have religion and its various benefits due to a process, maybe rational, that comes to the conclusion, “Religion is good; let’s have it.” In other words, believers have religion because it is good, or at least, they perceive it that way.

I think we owe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) a lot; thank you for your service. They’ve done much toward our liberation. That’s taken some courage to speak out and strength to face largely unfair criticism (My bent is a tad bit more soft, maybe not a lot, and a smidge more “spiritual.”). I, and perhaps you, have been buoyed up by their work and words. I was disappointed, though, to learn that some (at least Dawkins and Dennett–I don’t know that I’ve heard Harris’ or Hitchens’ positions) believe religion is NOT an adaptation, but a spandrel.

For me, all the pieces of the puzzle snapped together when I learned of the evolutionary origin of religion. That was the greatest revelation of my life. It was the “missing link” in the understanding of why there is religion. Religion IS NOT a response to supernatural beings in a spiritual realm, but an adaptive characteristic that gave some tribes, some cultures an advantage–akin to something like our bellicose nature and territoriality.

Save that discussion for another time, Sheiman’s book, I think, is worth a read, if for nothing more than stimulating the discussion on the more interesting topic, that an atheist would defend religion. I can see a humanist offering tentative support to the extent that religion serves humanity, but stopping short of any cowtowing to religious dogma or a hierarchical power structure. (Not on this blog, but I wrote a short story a few years ago about an anti-religious man in a post-apocalyptic distopia–my default crucible for what-if-reality–who found himself defending a church as his humanist gut told him to do.)

In what seems to me to be a cursory discussion, since the book was printed in 2009, though it could have been written earlier, Sheiman gives short shrift to the idea that any genes could carry forward much of a propensity toward religious belief and grants even less merit to the truly scientific parts of neurotheology–those parts being the the cause and effects of neurochemicals in religious belief and thought. Sheiman dealt with both of these in less space than a single page.

Those are not directly his topic of course. And it’s not my intent to drag his thesis through my flower garden (well, maybe it is), but the thesis that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to me, is as important an organizing principle in the study of religion’s origins as evolution is as an organizing principle in the study of biology.

What’s germaine about this to Sheiman’s point? It goes to the heart of why we have religions–and how the religious practitioners “get ahead.” (Long story short–think of the time scale–the last hundred thousand years. The tribes or troupes that have deep, committed involvement in they’re common identity, origin myths, ultimate destiny, and, possibly, fidelity to the same deity, as well as a common “rant, chant, dance and trance,” these peoples would thrive where less bonded–and less bound–early humans would not. Coupled with bellicosity and territoriality, what’s stronger than invoking God & Country as we go to war?) And there you have what would be the strong sense in which it was better for humanity to have religion than not.

I hope these twin theses, of religion as an evolutionary adaptation and the neurochemical underpinnings of belief, which might be a corollary of the former, weren’t discounted by Sheiman as I fear they might have been by Dawkins and Dennett to fit well within their belief structures about religion. That is, could Sheiman want religion to have such a source in the heart of humanity that it exists precisely for the good it does, while at the same time, Dawkins and Dennett reject the possibility that religion served as an advantageous adaptation–and that that legitimizes religion to a greater extent than they wish it did?

In spite of its evolutionary origin, if religion offers an enjoyable association of people who’ve come together to express gratitude for life, health, and each other’s company in good will and who intend to do good for those in need, it would be hard to fault that.

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Out of the Wilderness The Pulpit and the Pew

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. tom appleton  |  November 16, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    switch your spel czech on…?


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I write for agnostics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists. In my nonfiction, the purpose is the celebration of our noble human spirit. The general pursuit may be Evolutionary Theology, though believers seem to populate that field (so maybe it's evolutionary Humanism). By looking at who we are and where we came from, we can derive much meaning, and perhaps more importantly, understanding, as well as some sense of where we could go.

Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought

This title is an upcoming book at the publisher's now. I'd like feedback on this title. It's meant to make people think and feel something. And to hint at things for both believers and non- on multiple levels. The book is of a wider scope, though, one which is ultimately a way to grasp more meaning for ourselves. Believers are always telling us our lives don't have meaning without a god. We often counter that it's more meaningful to be looking for our own meaning than to be arbitrarily ascribed it by an imaginary supernatural being. Ultimately, and this is what I think is unique about this book, you'll see how we can be just as spiritual in our own way. Since we've inhertited a capacity for religion (some more than others) as an evolutionary adaptation, believers and non- are both potentially spritual in the same way--but it is an earthly, secular spirituality in which we all can share.

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