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?
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. . .