Templeton has another Big Ideas piece in Slate: What’s the future of religion?

December 7, 2014 • 12:39 pm

The John Templeton Foundation has formed what seems to be an unholy partnership with Slate, for Templeton’s new “Big Ideas” post, “What is the future of religion?”, although really an advertisement, comes with the Slate website imprimatur (http://www.slate.com/bigideas/what-is-the-future-of-religion) and a Slate icon on its tab. If you look closely at the top, though, you’ll see in faint letters, “Paid program sponsored by John Templeton Foundation.” That leaves its status a bit dubious, though. Sponsored?

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But never mind. You may be familiar with the “Big Ideas” posts from the New York Times, which were more clearly labeled as ads.  In those posts, Templeton got about a half dozen people to tackle a question about religion or spirituality, usually involving at least some of their own board members or people they’ve funded. Each participant writes a mini-essay, usually taking one side of a yes-or-no question.

The new Slate collection is no exception, for every one of the participants (Charles Taylor, Alister McGrath, James K. A. Smith, Leonard Firestone, Michael Shermer, Rodney Stark, David Sloan Wilson, Fenggang Yang, and Justin Barrett, has either written for Templeton regularly in the past (Shermer), has given or directed Templeton-funded lectures or seminars (McGrath, Firestone), won the Templeton Prize (Taylor) or has had their research funded by Templeton (most of the rest; check the links). And David Sloan Wilson is also on Templeton’s Board of Advisors.  This is part of Templeton’s continuing strategy to co-opt scholars by first funding them, and subsequently keeping them in their stable to trot them out when needed, as in this “Big Questions” ad. I’m told that you get paid quite a bit for participating, but I don’t know how much.

Now it’s okay to use some of your fundees in this way, but really, every one of them? Doesn’t that look bad, or raise questions about compromising one’s integrity? Of course it’s not necessary to support Templeton’s agenda (finding comity between science and religion) in an ad like this if your research is funded by them, but it doesn’t look good for you. It is as if someone funded or employed by the National Science Foundation was occasionally paid handsomely to write a piece supporting the aims of that Foundation. Shermer is one exception, as he pretty regularly disses religion, even though he’s paid by Templeton. But of course it would look even worse for Templeton if they didn’t have one or two token dissenters to make these exchanges look like scholarly discussions rather than unctuous bouts of toadying.

I don’t want to discuss all the essays on the “Whence religion?” question, and I have neither time nor space. The sad fact is that about half of them don’t even deal with the question. One of those is Shermer’s (“Do anomalies prove the existence of God?“), which discusses the fallout from his Scientific American column that I mentioned the other day. It’s a good essay, and, though ducking Templeton’s question, raises some interesting issue. The other essays are ho-hum and barely worth reading, although you might have a look at Rodney Stark’s piece, which proclaims triumphantly that religion is on the upswing throughout the world. That’s the opposite conclusion reached by sociologist Phil Zuckerman in a recent interview by Sam Harris, and I’ll let you adjudicate these conflicting conclusions.

Today I’ll reflect briefly on evolutionist David Sloan Wilson’s essay, “The future of religion in the light of evolution.” Wilson works at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where much of his work has been funded by Templeton.

Wilson’s take-home message is simple: religion (and its spiritual analog, which Wilson calls “meaning systems”) came about by “cultural group selection,” which Wilson sees as a direct parallel to evolutionary (biological and genetic) group selection. Because of this, we cannot understand the future of religion without knowing a lot about science. As he says:

Once we focus on the universality of meaning systems, we can begin to make sensible statements about the meaning systems worth wanting in the future. They need to solve problems of coordination and cooperation at a planetary scale. To do this, they must be highly respectful of scientific knowledge. Anything less will result not only in a lack of knowledge about how to behave,  but the evolution of social entities that are well-designed for their own survival but are cancerous with respect to the long term welfare of the planet.

Before he makes his case for group selection of religion, Wilson shows what might be construed as a bit of self-pity for being overriden by the four horsemen:

In 2002, I published a book with the bold title Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. My aim was to explain the nature of religion as a human construction from a modern evolutionary perspective. I was not alone in my ambition. Two other books with the same aim were published within the same year: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer and In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran.

A few years later, our scholarly books were overrun by the four horsemen of the New Atheism movement: Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). The four horsemen wanted everyone to know that God doesn’t exist, but they also had opinions on the nature of religion as a human construction. Dawkins and Dennett are iconic interpreters of evolution for the general public. Harris and Hitchens were not trained in evolution, per se, but framed their arguments in terms of science and rationality, which includes evolutionary theory.

All of us were relying upon the same theoretical framework, but our ideas about the nature of religion were almost comically different.

Umm. . . I wouldn’t call Wilson’s book any more scholarly than Dennett’s or Harris’s. All of these were trade books, written for the public, and evinced good scholarship. (So did Richard’s, but I consider that more of a polemic than the others. Hitchens’s book was erudite, but gave no references!) I reviewed Darwin’s Cathedral for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) in 2002, and wasn’t impressed. My review isn’t online, but since I still hold the copyright I’ll put it up immediately after this post. That will save me from having to repeat here what I’ve said already.

Wilson claims in his Slate essay that, like biological group selection, in which traits become predominant in a species because they are advantageous not for individuals, but for groups of individuals, religion became widespread based on cultural group selection. Religions, says Wilson, spread because the ideas and behaviors they promulgated were good for groups, and so those groups having the “better” religions were those that came to dominate our world.

Wilson is a big proponent of biological group selection (for which there is virtually no evidence), and so sees the cultural analog as a close parallel:

What’s new about approaching religion from an evolutionary perspective is that progress has been made discriminating among the alternative hypotheses. There is much more agreement about cultural group selection as an important evolutionary force, resulting in religious systems that organize communities of religious believers, much as Durkheim posited. An especially important advance has been to test adaptation versus byproduct hypotheses separately for genetic and cultural evolution.

The growing consensus is that some elements of religion qualify as byproducts with respect to genetic evolution (e.g., an innate tendency to attribute agency to events, which evolved by genetic evolution without reference to religion) but adaptations with respect to cultural evolution (e.g., particular conceptions of gods as agents that have the effect of motivating group-advantageous behaviors). A sample of recent books that convey this consensus includes The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, The Faith Instinctby Nicholas Wade, Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan, and the magisterial Religion in Human Evolution by the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah.

The fact that scientific progress has been made on deciphering the nature of religion as a human construction is (or should be) big news. But there is bigger news. For the first time, we are beginning to understand human cultural evolution as a process comparable to genetic evolution, complete with its own system of inheritance. Why a coherent theory of cultural evolution took so long to develop is a long story, but the bottom line is that the same conceptual and methodological toolkit that has been developed for the study of biological diversity can be applied to the study of human cultural diversity. It is an exciting moment in intellectual history.

Well, religion, insofar as it appeals to the human psyche, certainly must appeal to some aspects of our evolved psychology, so in that sense it has to be a byproduct of evolution, just like music, sports, and the tendency to eat too many fats and sweets. But I doubt (and I think Wilson agrees) that there are specific “God genes” that code for belief in sky fathers. Religion is surely a spandrel in some way, but in what way we still don’t know. Boyer’s theory of agency detection is one idea, but there are others: hope for an afterlife, an evolved tendency to be credulous, and so on. The fact is that we know virtually nothing about how religion itself arose, although we have been around to see what psychological factors play a role in religions that arose in our lifetimes, like Scientology. Unlike Wilson, though, I don’t see a pervasive consensus about how religion arose. We have theories, but no good way to test them.

I dealt with the “cultural group selection” argument for religion in my TLS piece, which I’ll put up shortly, and argue that group selection for cultural traits is not at all analogous to the type of biological/evolutionary group selection that is supposed to operate in nature (but for which there’s again little evidence). We certainly cannot use the same conceptual and methodological toolkit for cultural evolution that we use for studying genetic evolution. And here I’ll make just a few points:

  • Culture is not spread vertically from parent to offspring, like genes, but horizontally. There is thus nothing like the laws of Mendelian inheritance that we can use to make models of cultural evolution.
  • Evolutionary group selection is supposed to operate by the differential proliferation of groups (i.e., differential “reproduction”). Cultural evolution need not occur that way. Either a group can simply conquer other groups rather than budding off more groups, or, more often, things like religion can spread from one group to another, like a virus. Islam spread not because it had better ideas, but better warriors and an ideology of jihad. In Europe during the Middle Ages, you simply adopted the religion of that of your local ruler.
  • The cultural selection theory for religion argues that those religions that are best for their societies (i.e., promote inter-group harmony, altruism, and amity) are those that spread most widely. But “spreadability” of cultural traits need not involve any such thing. As Steve Pinker emphasized in his Edge Essay “The false allure of group selection,” cultural group selection can promote things like coercion, aggression, and indoctrination. And, if you think about it for a minute, that makes sense. (By the way, Pinker’s essay is superb.)

But I’ll stop here. Wilson is still touting the same group-selectionist theories that he promoted in Darwin’s Cathedral (whose writing was also supported by Templeton), and I stand by the criticisms I made 12 years ago.

I hope to write briefly about Shermer’s much better essay tomorrow, but we’ll see. . .

h/t: Steve

30 thoughts on “Templeton has another Big Ideas piece in Slate: What’s the future of religion?

    1. sub

      Not to be totally fatuous, but Wilson’s father, Sloan Wilson, wrote the novel “A Summer Place,” which was made into a movie in 1959 starring, among others, Sandra Dee and Troy Donohue.

      1. sigh….I had such a crush on Troy Donahue when that movie first came out. I even disobeyed my parents and snuck out to see it…

  1. “Culture is not spread vertically from parent to offspring, like genes, but horizontally.”

    This is a great point, and one that critically complicates any attempt to apply existing models to any such phenomenon.

    1. Isn’t it both? Culture is spread both horizontally and vertically, while genes are substantially only spread vertically, especially in eukaryote organisms.

      1. Yes, both methods of transfer exist, but how do you efficiently separate one from the other? How much does horizontal transfer effect vertical transfer, and vice-versa? Makes modelling the dynamics of culture extremely difficult.

        1. There’s been a lot of work done (I believe, though I’m not familiar with the details) on modelling the spread of languages and diseases, and population genetics is sometimes considered a special case of epidemiology. So there are people working on models where both lateral and vertical transfer are important.

  2. One of the beauty of prehistoric (read unrecorded) religion is its ritualistic focus on the value of community and its relation to the natural world as it was understood and changed with new knowledge.

    It seems that the historical religions are incapable of altering their written words accordingly.

    The Templeton Foundation is doing all it can to preserve this drag on religion, the early purpose of which was healthy and successful community.

    The future of religion lies in the secular and deity optional groups that focus on personal and community well being, whether they call themselves religious or not.

    1. I’d never thought of that. It means before writing, religion could evolve with culture. Once religion got written down, it was harder for both religion and culture to move on. Nowadays, of course, it’s secular society that’s dragging religion forward – things like equality for women and LGBT people occur in secular society well before religion even starts talking about the same issues. Religion, as we all know, is hidebound by being wedded to values written down in another time.

      1. I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Gila Cliff Dwellings and became immersed in prehistoric rituals. In the Hopi creation myth, which likely predates Copernicus, the earth is destroyed by ice when the creator tells his nephews, who are holding onto the earth’s poles, to let go so the earth will tumble and become an ice ball. Seems to me that is a variation in the myth added when some Hopi kid came home from school and said, “Grandpa, Did you know the earth is a ball, spinning on an axis with ice caps at both poles?”

        It depends on what one calls religion. If a deity is required then one must dismiss all non-theistic groups including the Humanist Jews and Christians. There is definitely a movement away from theistic religion. The question now on the table is whether Buddhism, Taoism, UUs and others who call their groups religions need to be beaten up?

        For me, the term has become meaningless except in the individual mind.

  3. > Hitchens’s book was erudite, but gave no references!

    Yes it did! They’re just not given in the running text, but referred to by page number and description at the end of the book.

  4. I saw religion as simply a way to differentiate yourselves from the outsiders while enforcing the rules to the insiders. It could be I’ve been influenced too much by Marx though.

    1. I think religion is a differentiator, it’s just not only that. Apologists and critics seem to just be talking past each other: apologists say critics are wrong because they misrepresent what religion is, and critics can always (rightly, I think) counter that apologists describe religion that no actual humans practice. It’s a mess.

  5. I wonder about the degree to which the availability of knowledge from the Internet will contribute to the evolution of religion and religiosity.

    As a teenager I was fascinated by dowsing (we had a neighbour who was a water-diviner, among other things) and read everything I could find on it. None of what I read was evidence-based or sceptical; in our small-town library there was a small range of books. Years later it occurred to me to look it up on the internet: and it turns out that there is abundant evidence that it doesn’t work.

    Thanks to the Internet one can buy (or download, if concealing one’s reading is important) books criticising one’s religion, or one can head to Wikipedia to look it up. Maybe in terms of the religion/rationality process, we are in the Wikipecene.

    As humanity has never had knowledge available like this before, I guess it is difficult to predict the effect it will have. Maybe the Templeton Foundation would like to pay me to look into it 🙂

    1. I’m reminded of Hitchens telling William F. Buckley on “Firing Line” in 1984, “My withers remain unwrung.”

  6. How did religion even get started and why was it made up in the first place? It seems that before about 10k-15k ya, there really was no religion. There is no evidence that the most genetically ancient peoples on earth today–who are still nomadic hunter-gatherers–have any religious interests at all. Efforts to “christianize” them have all failed miserably.)
    Religion seems to have gotten going along with the coming of agriculture, settled areas, and conflicts between nomadic peoples and farming (non-nomadic) groups that led to the beginnings of militaristic empires. Peter Turchin who does research and writing in this area has called religion a “cultural tool” that was used to help ally widely spread out areas of villages and towns with each other to war against raiding nomads. These single farmers/villages/towns were too small by themselves to fight the outside raiders, but by banding together they could put together a military force strong enough to do that. (I hope that states Turchin’s ideas reasonably well.) Using religion as a common bond to do this at least makes some political sense and gets us away from the “god gene” sort of stuff that doesn’t explain why more ancient peoples seemed to have no religious beliefs of any kind. It seems they just didn’t need them so they didn’t have to make them up.

  7. “What’s the future of religion?”

    The correct answer is the same one I got when, as a novice caddy hoping to secure some practice balls, I inquired of the golfer whose clubs I was then carrying — a singularly unskilled, high-handicap duffer notorious for shanking his drives into the woods and plunking his approach shots into water hazards — what he did with his old golf balls:

    “I haven’t any.”

  8. I used to love Slate. It had excellent, well-reasoned liberal commentary. But more and more it has shown the lazy hysteria and clickbait much better suited to Salon.

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