D. S. Wilson goes after New Atheism again

May 19, 2012 • 5:20 am

Whenever you see an interview or article by David Sloan Wilson these days, you know he’ll be kvetching about one of two things: the horribly unfair neglect of group selection by evolutionary biologists, or the horribly unfair neglect of “evolutionary religious studies” (ERS) by evolutionary biologists.  (“Evolutionary religious studies” comprise the efforts of scholars to discern the evolutionary basis of religious behavior. It’s a subset of “religious studies,” which include non-evolutionary reasons for faith.)  And just as invariably, you’ll find Wilson making  gratuitous swipes at the New Atheists who, he sees, are drawing attention from his own endeavors, criticizing the false beliefs and inimical effects of religion rather than doing what Wilson wants us to do, which is work on why religion evolved.  Wilson’s entire oeuvre over the last two decades can be summed up in three words: “I’ve been neglected!”  The curious thing is that Wilson is an atheist himself.

In his new piece at PuffHo, “The New Atheism and evolutionary religious studies: clarifying their relationship,” Wilson sings the same tune.  In fact, it’s a tune similar to that warbled by Terry Eagleton, who famously complained that Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, didn’t pay enough attention to sophisticated (and often obscure) theologians like Duns Scotus. In Wilson’s piece, he complains that New Atheists (including Dawkins, of course) don’t pay enough attention to sophisticated practitioners of ERS like Wilson himself.

Wilson makes three points about the relationship between ERS and New Atheism. The first two are unexceptionable.

  • “They are alike in their rejection of the “actively intervening god” hypothesis. . . The New Atheists are deeply convinced about the nonexistence of actively intervening gods. Religious scholars don’t shout their convictions from the rooftops, but their adherence to methodological naturalism amounts to the same thing.”
  • “As a scholarly discipline, ERS is agnostic about what gets done with the knowledge that is created. The New Atheism is oriented toward action.”

The third point is what gets Wilson’s claws out:

  • “Whenever New Atheists make claims about religion as a human phenomenon, their claims should respect the authority of empirical evidence. Insofar as the new discipline of ERS has added to empirical knowledge of religion, the New Atheists should be paying close attention to ERS. This is especially true for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose names are so closely associated with evolution. Step 3 should go without saying and I doubt that anyone would disagree with it in principle. Yet, by my assessment, there is a serious disconnect between the New Atheism and ERS at the level of Step 3. I will illustrate with a single example involving Richard Dawkins. . .”

The example? In a talk on YouTube (the six-minute video below), Dawkins answers an audience question about the evolutionary advantage of religion.  He floats the idea that religion is a byproduct of other traits that were themselves adaptive (he uses the example of moths flying into candles as a byproduct of their evolved ability to keep a constant angle when using the moon to navigate).

There’s nothing wrong with that answer: it’s one possibility.  Others, like Pascal Boyer, have suggested different “byproduct” explanations, in Boyer’s case that religion is a byproduct of humans’ evolved tendency to attribute agency to objects in their environment.  So what’s Wilson’s beef? It’s similar to Eagleton’s:

The problem is that the byproduct hypothesis is only one of six major evolutionary hypotheses that can explain any given aspect of religion. The others explain religion as an adaptation to the current environment (at the group level, the individual level, or only for the cultural trait as a parasite), as an adaptation to past environments that has become mismatched to its current environment, or as a neutral product of drift. In addition, these hypotheses need to be addressed separately for genetic and cultural evolution.

Six of them! And Dawkins didn’t even mention the other five!

. . . The question is, when Dawkins was asked to comment on religion as a product of evolution, how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleagues? Is it indeed the current state of knowledge that religion is like a moth to flame and results primarily in silly counterproductive behaviors? Or did Dawkins distort what is currently known about religion as a product of evolution, either knowingly or unknowingly?

In other words, Dawkins neglected the Duns Scotuses (Scoti?) of ERS.  Wilson goes on to attack New Atheism as a whole for the same fault:

At this point, it is important to leave Dawkins and pose the same questions for the New Atheism movement as a whole. In general, whenever people associated with the movement comment on religion as a human phenomenon (step 3), do they respect the authority of empirical evidence to the best of our current knowledge? Or do they bias their portrayal of religion, selectively emphasizing scientific hypotheses that, if true, would promote their activist objectives (step 2)?

The answers to these questions make the difference between a legitimate science-based activist agenda and an ideology that distorts facts to serve its narrow purpose (knowingly or unknowingly). . .

No one would be happier than me to discover that the New Atheists are basing their activist agenda on the best current knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon. But if this is not the case — if New Atheists are portraying religion any way they please by selectively quoting scientific hypotheses — then they’re no better than bible thumpers.

And, of course, Wilson finally gets around to his big problem: he’s butthurt because people like Dawkins neglect Wilson’s own brand of ERS: the evolution of religion as a “prosocial” behavior via group selection (see my review of his book on this topic)

. . . [imagine] what would happen if Dawkins gave an answer to the audience member’s question more in line with the current ERS literature. What if he had said that religions are fundamentally about the creation and organization of prosocial communities? That all people require a cultural meaning system to organize their experience, receiving environmental information as input and resulting in effective action as output? That all cultural meaning systems confront a complex tradeoff between the factual content of a given belief and its effect upon action? That secular meaning systems often depart from factual reality in their own ways? The effect upon the audience would have been very different than when they were told that religion is like a moth immolating itself or like a child mindlessly being fed useless information.

I seriously doubt that.  The audience didn’t come to hear Richard discourse on the many ways religion might have originally come into being.  That would be a long and boring lecture—and one without a conclusion, since we’ll never really know how religion got started in the first place, or whether it evolved via group selection.

What Wilson doesn’t realize, but anybody not blinded by hubris should, is that the agenda of New Atheism is concerned not so much with the origins of religion (though Dan Dennett dealt with it in Breaking the Spell), but with the truth of religious teachings and the effect of those teachings on the world.  The agenda is this:

  1. Testing whether the tenets of religion are true. The New Atheist answer is “no.”
  2. Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world.
  3. Getting rid of the unwarranted authority and privilege that religion, established churches, and religious officials have garnered for themselves over the centuries.

Note that none of that depends on the evolutionary origins of religion, indeed, on whether religion even has an evolutionary origin.  Points 1 and 2 above have nothing to do with the issue, and point 3 only tangentially.

Perhaps Wilson would argue that if we understand the evolutionary basis of religious belief, it will help us deal with its effects.  I have two responses to that: 1) I doubt whether we’ll ever understand the evolutionary basis of religious belief. How could we ever tell, for instance, whether it spread by group selection, or if it is even genetically based? (I’ve proposed bringing up children in a religion-free environment to see if they spontaneously become religious. I doubt it.) 2) As I argued in my review in The New York Times, it’s dubious whether it’s even useful to use knowledge gleaned from ERS to deal with social problems. Wilson’s own Neighborhood Project in Binghamton, which tries to reform his town by using principles of “prosociality” and group selection, hasn’t exactly been a shining success.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t think we shouldn’t study religious beliefs and practices so we can take them on in an informed way. That’s one reason I’m spending a lot of time reading theology.  My beef is that understanding how religion works and what it believes can be done independently of how it originated in the first place.  We’ll never know much about that origin, but we can learn a lot about how religion works now.

You don’t see many of the New Atheists telling Wilson to drop his crusade for group selection and join them in their fight against religion.  We’re content to leave him alone to pursue his lonely agenda, with some of us occasionally pointing out its futility.  But Wilson simply can’t shut up about the New Atheists.  I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it’s because he thinks his ideas deserve more attention than theirs. But ERS is a speculative enterprise, and the harms of religion are real.  I’d rather take on the latter than speculate about the former.

Increasingly, Wilson is beginning to resemble those seagulls in the film Finding Nemo, whose only cry, as they fight for scraps of food, is “Mine, mine, mine, mine!”:

Unfortunately, the largesse of the Templeton foundation has given Wilson a big megaphone, so I don’t expect his atheist-bashing to stop any time soon.

65 thoughts on “D. S. Wilson goes after New Atheism again

  1. When I read Wilson’s article it struck me as little more than what PZ calls the Courtier’s Reply.

  2. It is sad and puzzling that so many self professed atheists seem to think attacks on people who see religion as false and harmful as something worth their time and effort. Surely, any atheist must be able to see that religions are false? And one would have thought they would find it easy to see that religions are harmful. Increasingly, I think of such ‘atheists’, not as fellow-travellers, but as Quislings.

    1. We need our own word, rather than “quisling”. Since “quisling” was originally a Norwegian collaborator’s name, who is the arch-accommodationist whose name we can appropriate in the same way?


      1. Good idea.

        Perhaps, Jerry would devote a post to the question, so we can get a wide range of options to choose from?

        1. Most such efforts seem to come up with something rather regrettable and slightly embarrassing (bright, gnusader). (Of course that’s just my personal opinion). But since in this case we’re looking for a term of opprobium, I guess the odds of success are somewhat better. 🙂

          1. I think you are right about bright and gnusader. I suspect you may also be right as it is about labelling others. But even if it came to naught, it might be fun to try.

  3. “I’ve proposed bringing up children in a religion-free environment to see if they spontaneously become religious. I doubt it.”

    I’ve brought up 6 kids this way (yikes!) with 3 different genetic backgrounds (biological parents), and none of them turned religious. The church’s claim that people need religion is nonsense.

    1. Same with my two. My daughter tells me that she’s frequently asked what denomination she’s affiliated with.

      “Well then, what WERE you?”

      Apparently the people asking this question generally find it very difficult to process the second reply.

    2. Yeah. I was raised in the parsonage of a fundamentalist preacher, and it took me decades to rid myself of that drivel. My kids were raised ‘without benefit of clergy’ so far as was possible, given grandparents and all, and turned out fine. Two grandsons are being raised totally free of religion, and are doing fine. They view the natural world as reality, and see no reason for any extraneous explanations. I envy them.

    3. I raised one in a non-religious environment. Result: one Bible-thumpin’ Christian.

      In any case, anecdotes are not evidence.

      1. Well, these testimonials aren’t intended to prove anything conclusively one way or the other. Only to demonstrate that religion is not a necessary psychological tool for dealing with life, nor do people necessarily show a tendency to become religious, irrespective of the culture in which they are raised – some do, some don’t. Which shows that some don’t.

      2. Sorry about your child. I hope things improve.

        However, your anecdote IS evidence and it falsifies the hypothesis that kids raised in a non-religious environment will not turn out to be thumpers. One data point, haphazardly collected, may still be enough to settle an issue. Science does not always require carefully designed experiments.

        1. I don’t think anybody said kids raised in a religion-free environment are guaranteed, 100%, never to become bible-thumpers. Just that they are far less likely to.

          I think it’s also a personality thing – some individuals may be more prone to ‘believing in something’ than others, just as some become alcoholics / drug addicts and others with the same exposure, don’t. The prone ones, whether it’s the bible they end up believing in or UFOlogy or Star Trek fandom, is probably just a matter of chance. Whoever knocked on their door (metaphorically speaking) at a critical moment.

          1. Really, the environment in which your children are raised cannot be religion free. You can’t isolate them from religious influence altogether, unless you decamp to some uninhabited Pacific island with no visitors, no broadcast media, and no internet…


            1. Did the little-religiously raised biblethumper have some need to justify violence and/or is fond of the holier-than-thou attitude?
              We can discuss the origins of religion ad infinitum, but have to cope with the uses certain personalities make of it – as soon as they experience that it works.
              I am sorry, Marta, if I rub salt into your emotional wounds, and i hesitated to make this post because of it, but I noticed that with the young generation quite often.
              It is interesting that nearly-nonreligious upbringing in Europe makes many non-interested´s out of children, a few upright atheists and a small, but very loud number of fanatics. I have not found ONE moderate believer among them, be their sourrounding/family history Christian or Muslim!
              The abovementioned Trekkers are different, and I am convinced that this is because SF fandom does not provide its members with political power or the ability to justify suppressing others. Ufo-believers have already spawned one organized religion with a kind of pope: Raelianism. So they are developing – to no good.

    4. We raised a son and a daughter religion-free figuring that they could think for themselves if given the ability to think critically. Both of them attended Catholic schools for a while. I remember with fondness the day my son’s 8th grade science/religion/homeroom teacher gently broke it to us that maybe our son didn’t believe the god stuff. A proud moment for me, if I do say so. The teacher seemed genuinely surprised that this news did not bother us.

      1. I recognize there a sarcastic and ironic summary dismissing Wilson’s arguments, not a serious point. It was a bit spare, but then we need not be so literal minded in our reading…

  4. The other problem with seeking a definite answer to the evolutionary origins of religion is the fact that it could very likely be quite complex and multi-faceted. It’s not unusual for complicated animal behaviors to have multiple intertwined evolutionary causes.

    It seems like us humans a primed to very readily accept certain types of supernatural explanations. The byproduct hypothesis seems to be a pretty natural fit for that behavior. On the other hand, why does this tendency manifest itself in the formation of coherent groups with a uniform dogma? There, Wilson’s account is more plausible (though, being like many others rather skeptical of the importance of group selection, I think it more likely that the prosocial aspects — such as they are — were the result of cultural evolution and refinement rather than anything operating at the genetic level).

  5. I tried understanding D. S. Wilson’s writings a couple of years ago and stopped when I realized his work was unconvincing and his writing was often angry and full of his self-promotion.

    1. Well, there’s nothing wrong with angry when there’s something to be angry about. Self-promotion can be tiresome. But “Unconvincing” is the kicker for me. That makes it a waste of time.

  6. “how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleagues?”

    How many scientists are actually working on ERS? Where do these papers appear? What conferences should I attend to hear the talks? This seems like a VERY small & obscure field to me — maybe just Wilson? He’s the only one I’m aware of anyway. Should that have been “hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleague”?

    1. If you look at michaelbdowd’s reply you can get a pretty decent list of scholars and as to where they publish all over the place! There are dedicated ERS/cognitive psychology of religion journals (which are extremely easy to locate with a simple google search) and articles appear in a wide variety of mainstream journals. There are also a multitude of books and if you have a look at the reference list in one recent article you will find more than enough research to keep you occupied for quite some time. ESR/CSR research is a new field but it has been developing for about 20 years now and there is quite an extensive research literature if you care to look.

      1. At least two, but you can easily identify the right one — and see that Jerry’s assertion is baseless.

        1. Unless Jerry was talking about the lay audience/popular press, that sort of thing? I think I’ve only heard of Wilson being mentioned here in all my news feeds, while you can hear about Dawkins et al all over the place.

          1. Yes, that’s what I was referring to. I recognize that Wilson has published papers in refereed journals, though I find many of them thin and some of even those papers are whines about how he’s misunderstood. His popular work is what I meant by his “oeuvre”, so let me clarify that here.

            That said, I find the professional stuff on group selection unconvincing, and the Neighborhood Project a waste of money and resources.

            1. “That said, I find the professional stuff on group selection unconvincing, and the Neighborhood Project a waste of money and resources.”

              It seems like you have an easy time ignoring a consensus among biologists. Queller, a prominent advocate of inclusive fitness, recognizes group selection as an equivalent method of accounting. What is your beef? Jerry, your arguments against group selection are outdated, and are no longer respectful of the scientific process.


              1. Sorry, your comment comes nowhere close to establishing any kind of “consensus” on group selection. You’ll need a few more references for that.

                And anyway, what’s your beef? Youmadbro?

  7. I’ve been reading a few books lately which have discussed the changing nature of our social lives over the past several centuries. The trend has been increasing “isolation”, that is we’ve been moving into smaller groups, with looser cohesion, weaker bonds and all the while spending more time by ourselves or with a shrinking family. All of this was portrayed as negative. In “Life, Inc”, the author bemoaned the fact that one of the first things people do when they get money is to retreat to quieter, more private spaces.

    All of this makes me think about the supposed pro-social aspect of religious services, the tight social structures and the atheists who seek to replicate them. Wilson seems to be just one among many but there are worse, like those that want some sort of atheist chapel.

    I wonder – and here’s where I hope to get corrected by the hive mind – whether this is backwards or even harmful. Could the tight social bonds actually be a symptom of dogmatism that we seek to undermine? Could the rise of the Mega-churches be a sign of the general securlarization of America, as churches become less specific and more about amenities than religion? I’m reminded of Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature where he draws the connection between morality and violence (and of Carlin who also says there’s too much morality in the world).

    Could it be that there’s also too much tight social bonding in the world as well? Could it be that this is a feature we should try to undermine or should we try to emulate?

    (Sorry for the slight digression.)

    1. That’s an intriguing idea.

      It seems, prima facie, plausible to me.

      Your “hive-mind” comment ties right in. Many people seem loathe to think for themselves; to try to comprehend issues and the phenomena pertaining to them. That’s sort-of like psychological isolation. Much easier to “kill two birds”: joining and assimilating into a social network by accepting and perpetuating dogma.

      I read a short biography of Newton titled “Solitary Scholar.” Much of my respect for the man stems from the fact that his achievements were made in such solitude (“shoulders of giants” comment notwithstanding). An island of rationality amid an ocean of irrationality.

      1. That makes me wonder if (or how much) increased mobility and telecommunications have had a part in weakening the social cohesion of religion within physical communities and at the same time fostering participation in multiple communities of interest (satisfying a social need), but with which the individual has relatively weaker ties.


        1. According to a few books I’ve been reading, the trend towards weaker social cohesion has been taking place over centuries, not decades. We’ve certainly see dramatic changes lately but I wonder if that’s just a reflection of our bias. I’d speculate that the trends towards urbanization and smaller families played a big part, and our media from radio (and even the printing press) have all worked to empower individuals.

          I suspect that what we call tight social cohesion was really a by-product of life in a small town with a religious hierarchy that fought to centralize power. Everything from the Gutenberg Bible through Facebook have been undoing that.

  8. Wilson argues that shared supernatural beliefs must have an adaptive function because they cause people to engage in certain prosocial behaviors.

    But it’s at least as likely that supernatural beliefs are simply more successful at replicating themselves to the extent that they are parasitic on, piggyback on, and encourage prosocial behaviors, or behaviors that make victory in war and conquest more probable.

    Remember the children’s story “Stone Soup”? A man is hungry and wants to persuade his neighbors to give him food, but they say no. So he says he has a magic stone which will make soup if it’s placed in a pot of boiling water.

    Once the pot is boiling, the man suggests that people put in some vegetables and things for “extra flavor.” He gets them to put in more and more vegetables and beans, and finally says the soup is ready.

    Everyone tastes the delicious soup and marvels at the magic stone that could have produced it, when in fact the stone was only the man’s way of persuading his neighbors to share their food with him.

    I think saying that supernatural beliefs cause prosocial behaviors is like saying that this “magic stone” makes soup.

  9. “Note that none of that depends on the evolutionary origins of religion, indeed, on whether religion even has an evolutionary origin.”

    It’s hard to conceive that it doesn’t. Religion is an outcome of the tribal nature of humans, the desire to form groups, be in them, and follow a leader. Nationalism is a form of religion (and BTW nations don’t always choose wise leaders).

    1. That humans are social and tribal is clear from observation and anthropological findings. How we got that way, and whether it involved anything resembling group selection is another question.

      But your comparison of nationalism and religion I think is very apt. We see Republican politics rising (or falling) to the status of religion these days, and nationalism is a key element of that toxic mixture of striving for purity in religion, longing for an exaggerated ideal past, and slavish respect for the authority of corporate/industrial power which are the primary ingredients of an fascist movement. If it isn’t stopped, it could swell and become something truly dangerous.

      Whenever anyone raises Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pot, et al as an argument against atheism, I think this is where the correct answer lies. It is the religious instinct, or the totalitarian impulse, that are related and predate the development of religion. Religion embodies this totalitarianism, the instinct for absolute control by wielding absolute power, but ruthless totalitarianism can exist either within or outside the context of religion without depending in any way on belief or disbelief in god. It is a dark aspect of human nature that is frequently reflected in and exacerbated by religion. It is not a necessary consequence of either religion or atheism.

  10. Rather than seagulls, Wilson reminds me of Rainn Wilson’s (character Dwight from the Office”.
    “Religion’s origins might be by products of otherwise useful behaviours”
    “False! Religion is a prosocial agreement between members of a society”.

  11. When looking at human evolution and thinking about group selection, it seems there is an enormous potential for confusion and error in trying to isolate biological genetic influences on specific cultural artifacts such as social groups, religion, or particular aspects of religion.

    Obviously today we have a kind of evolution, cultural evolution, that is distinct from and runs parallel in certain respects to biological evolution, and yet depends upon our biologically evolved capacities in very definite ways.

    How do we identify exactly when this cultural evolution was initiated? Clearly it was enabled by the enlargement of our brains. Was it a result of bipedalism, and the advent of the opposable thumb and increased manual dexterity? Tool usage (the stone axe)? Cooking food with fire? Certainly these things depend upon increased intelligence, but then they could also have triggered feedback that enabled the explosive growth of the human brain, and language, which is the ultimate foundation of most of human culture today.

    Whatever triggered this cultural evolution, it seems that it has shaped our biological evolution in certain ways. It allowed us to dominate and shape the environment that determines our biological fitness.

    Surely to talk about the evolution of religion as an adaptation in a context of pure biological genetic evolution is foolish. But once biological evolution triggered the first beginnings of brain culture, there is a new force that impacts pure biological genetic evolution in a new way, and probably does not follow the same rules and logic as pure genetic evolution based on replication and fitness as selected by a purely natural environment of predator and prey, metabolism and reproduction.

    What qualifies as fitness changes dramatically as culture advances. Once cultural evolution is bootstrapped, and language and enhanced mental capacity become significant aspects of human biology, it may well be that group selection as a purely cultural phenomenon takes hold and begins to influence biological evolution by redefining what fitness means.

    So while there seems to be no room for group fitness in species lacking language and culture, it doesn’t seem surprising that the ability to communicate and the intelligence to recognize the power derived from cooperation would begin to change and influence biological evolution by slowly changing the meaning of fitness.

    This debate about group selection may perhaps be resolved by saying that in pure biological genetic evolution group selection does not arise, but once expanded mental capacity, language, and culture are factored in, new rules apply and a kind of group selection may very well occur.

  12. . . . [imagine] what would happen if Dawkins …he had said that … all cultural meaning systems confront a complex tradeoff between the factual content of a given belief and its effect upon action? That secular meaning systems often depart from factual reality in their own ways? The effect upon the audience would have been very different than when they were told that religion is like a moth immolating itself or like a child mindlessly being fed useless information.

    Sure, a religious audience would greatly have preferred it if Richard Dawkins had reassured them that all beliefs — even secular ones — have unlikely elements in them that people believe because they have personal needs to be met. So relax if you’re trading off truth for comfort: atheists do it too. Really, even atheism is a kind of religion, and everyone has to have faith in something. Facts are over-rated: the important thing is, find what works for YOU. Live and let live, is Richard Dawkins’ motto. Let’s all change the subject now away from atheism vs. theism and celebrate what we have in common!

    I can imagine. The effect on the audience would no doubt have been electric.

  13. Hello All. Long time reader, fist time commenter. The cover article of National Geographic of June 2011, speculates: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest (11,600 yrs) temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” Further into the piece it reads “what it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.”
    This could be one more explanation for ERS. In any case, as Jerry puts it so well, “ERS is a speculative enterprise, and the harms of religion are real”.
    As far as man-made spectacles go; I prefer the Smithsonian or the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) than the Vatican.

  14. There is no “urge to worship,” as many of us atheists have shown. Much less is it that which “sparked civilization.” Religion was and is used to instill and enforce loyalty in a hostile environment. That’s why religious books are rife with demands for and tests of loyalty (e.g., Abraham/Isaac, etc.). That’s why our imaginary friend, who supposedly was powerful enough to make everything, still demands that we “believe in him.” That’s why he divides us into two groups: those that do and those that don’t. The key, as Jerry implied, is to get rid of the hostile environment.

    1. In times of greater ignorance there may well have been an urge to worship. There are signs of burial rituals going back 200-300,000 years, and well established signs of grave goods at least 30,000 years old, and some claims of up to 70,000 years.

      We have to assume that the brain back then was not all that different than ours is today. With that ability to think abstractly, to question, and to fear, coupled with the total ignorance of the causes of natural phenomenon, one can easily imagine a powerful impulse to worship born of fear, of want, and of ignorance.

      I think that urge to worship was probably born of fear and the need for security, but also the urge to understand and explain the environment, that natural human curiosity determined to fill any void with speculative narratives, with theories and explanations. In a sense religion was probably science 1.0, a failed first attempt at a comprehensive coherent narrative answering the questions we are so prone to ask: how did we get here, who are we, and why are we here? Why do we die of strange diseases, and what causes earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes? What brings the rains and the seasons? How can we gain some control of our environment and our destiny? Religion pretends to answer these questions, but offers only an empty story. The concept of God is like the negative space around our tiny store of knowledge. God is a clever but natural solution, almost a logical necessity for a hungry mind that demands answers but is condemned to ignorance.

      Science is well on the way toward providing real answers. It is a better way to get answers that is making the urge to worship obsolete. We now have self-reliance and real truth, so we no longer need to bow in slavery to unseen mysterious and terrifying masters.

  15. If you want to understand religion, don’t waste time with theology – the vast majority of the religious don’t know anything about even mainstream theology, nor do they care. Forget Dung Scrotum – ask a catholic about better known theologians like Augustine the Hippo or Thomas Equineass or even quiz them about modern theology and see how they fare. Historically, theology had always been secret knowledge for those in power and not something to be shown to the peons. For example, priests generally must study some theology but how many priests out there teach their congregations about theology?

  16. The problem is that the byproduct hypothesis is only one of six major evolutionary hypotheses that can explain any given aspect of religion. … The question is, when Dawkins was asked to comment on religion as a product of evolution, how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleagues?
    It seems to me that if there are at least six hypotheses which have not been eliminated, not a lot is actually known.

  17. “Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world….

    Note that none of that depends on the evolutionary origins of religion, indeed, on whether religion even has an evolutionary origin.”

    This contradicts Dawkins and you. Dawkins argues (in the video YOU POSTED) a maladaptive byproduct of an adaptation (mismatch) explanation for why religion persists. Readers of this can conclude that religion is detrimental to individuals and society. Determining whether religion inflicts more harm than good may not “depend on” the evolutionary origins explanation, it certainly is influenced by it, as even Dawkins recognizes.

  18. I sympathize with Wilson’s ideas. I think it will be good to know how religions evolve (some books by Loftus dwell with the issue too), and what were the driving forces, and how they explain the phenomena of religiousity in different cultures.

    Even better if we can harness these knowledge to solve current social ills as in Wilson’s The Neigborhood Project, which I thought was too ambitious, even grandiose, expecting things without proper knowledge, like gambling. The project – as expected of such endeavours – failed. Like the north-koreans trying to build long-range missiles without proper knowledge on rockets and control electronics.

    That said, Wilson should win praises by his own successes, not by bashing other people (esp Dawkins and Dennett!).

    So far, the ERS is just a p(r)etty acronym.

    I hope something come up from those, I love reading Loftus’ The End of Christianity, on chapters about Christianity Evolving, empirically explains what has become of these sects and those sects, it is all rational.

    I assume there could be some real scientific golds there (not just Templeton treasures!).

    This Wilson character just too hasty, have several deadly sins (!) like envy, greed and sloth …

    (as is normal with many normal human beings)


    1. I too find the question of how religion evolved to be intellectually interesting.

      But I completely agree that we may never know exactly, just as we will never know exactly how language evolved. We may learn more, and it will undoubtedly be of intellectual interest, but probably of little practical value.

      The greatest value of learning how religion evolved would be to help discredit religion’s phony legitimacy. There are still too many people cowed into believing that religion derives from some kind of special secret knowledge that is obscured from us today, and who falsely imagine that it is associated with some kind of magic unearthly powers that must be reckoned with. Anything is good if it helps to place religion in it’s proper place as ancient superstition and folk legend with no basis in reality other than the peculiarities and foibles of human psychology.

      But certainly there is no question about needing to reserve judgement about the truth of religion contingent upon future discoveries of ERS.

      There exists no evidence that religion is anything other than a human invention constructed solely for human convenience using the fallible capacities of humans and reflecting all the weaknesses of humans. From this perspective, there is little that ERS could reveal that an atheist would need to know or that could influence our view of religion.

  19. Surely there are less whiny advocates of Wilson’s overall position than Wilson (such as anthropologist Barbara King for example).

    If Wilson wants to say exploring the explanation of religion helps us develop strategies for dealing with religion that he thinks are better than the New Atheists, that’s fine, but he seems awfully self-referential (or is that self-reverential?)

  20. Eagleton is faithful follower of Pope Ratzinger and thus thinks like him. So much for his nonsense about Dawkins.

  21. This review of the article seems to do exactly what Jerry claims Wilson of doing. Wilson writes book, Jerry [who doesnt even study social evolution] attacks. Wilson attacks Dawkins on religion, Jerry [who also doesnt study religion] attacks. Sooooo, it basically boils down to Jerry just going after Wilson regardless of what the topic is. I agree that there are many different approaches to religious studies but dismissing religion as a byproduct or parasitic is a bit off [as yes, if describing it as a moth to a flame or parasite is your first response then that is typically what you think is the most important explanation].

    There are adaptive functions to believing things that are not real, such as there are monsters in the dark. As a child this certainly works to keep you from dark areas where you may fall or be picked off by a predator. Does it matter there is no real boogy man if what it makes you DO is adaptive? Also, believing those who you are at war with are sub human or just all around cruel people is not necessarily real. They are simply those that are competing with your group over a resource, but believing them to be cruel animals as opposed to groups of caring fathers and sons is advantageous when having to attack them. Believing in real karma is ridiculous but it helps you from screwing others over and being selfish all the time.

    There are also clear adaptive functions to religion if one has actually read on the topic or understands social evolutionary theory. I see nothing wrong with observing it as a group level advantage. Consider the evolution of morality for example. This is very close to religion in adaptive function, if not in effect coopted by religion. We dont run around and say that the notion of morality is parasitic or a byproduct do we? If someone does not believe in group selection, well then just call it inclusive fitness as they are equivalent frameworks anyway. I at least recommend someone read up on the notion equivalence. Maybe Jerry can write a post about that so that maybe those that follow Jerry here can at least be caught up to speed on what social evolutionists have been doing for the last few decades [hint: they have actually been writing papers this whole time]. Reading these commentaries about social evolution from time to time make me feel like I hopped in a Delorean.

    1. These rather condescending comments are based on the assumption that our host (and many of us commenters for that matter) are unfamiliar with the work of anthropologists (and others) who study this subject (Scott Atran, for example). I don’t think your assumption is supported by much, certainly not my bookshelf.

      And, for what it is worth, group selection and inclusive fitness are not “equivalent frameworks”.

  22. I enjoyed Jerry’s ‘Why Evolution is True’ book and when I saw that he had commented on Wilson’s short article was looking forward to the response but I have to say I am sorely disappointed.

    Evolutionary Religious Studies I presume is another name for the Cognitive Science of Religion (the more commonly used term for this research area). Despite Coyne’s portrayal this area of research is not entirely populated by speculative accounts of the origins of religion and in fact I’d say the majority of the work is actually experimental studies concerned with examining ‘how religion works today’. However, since religion is ultimately a part of culture and the expression and production of culture is intrinsically connected with our cognitive abilities, I also think it is entirely warranted to be mindful of our species evolutionary history when examining religion.

    Thus, I have to wonder if Jerry has read any (aside from Wilson’s) of the work of the researchers he is dismissing as irrelevant and categorising (wrongly) as a sub-division of religious studies? For instance, regarding the question of infants and religious beliefs there already exists substantial research from developmental psychologists (who comprise a significant portion of CSR researchers) on the ‘promiscuous teleological’ thinking of children which appears to develop independently of parental instruction (see the work of Deborah Kelemen or Paul Bloom- for instance). Jerry might agree or disagree with their research but it seems a shame to dismiss the findings of an entire field of research simply because you don’t like D.S. Wilson’s work.

    To lay my cards on the table I am an atheist and a CSR researcher currently working on my DPhil at Oxford. I study rituals and the psychological effects that participation in different types of rituals produce and I only occasionally pontificate on their evolutionary origins 😉

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