Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Evolution and Non-Evolution of God

A new book by Robert Wright has been stirring a lot of good discussion on web sites regarding the idea that we can understand religions at least in part by considering them to be part of our human evolution. The book is called The Evolution of God. I have yet to read it, but based on reviews, I think it is something I would agree with in general, if not in detail. I've shared my ideas of how evolution can help us understand how religion has been part of most human cultures. I shared a thumbnail view in a comment to a N.Y. Times blog article titled, The Non-Evolution of God.

One of my comments was referenced in a subsequent article in the same blog. Here is that comment. I have corrected a few typos and added a few links.

I strongly recommend anyone interested in the idea of evolution of religion and ethics read Frans de Waal (mentioned in the article) on the behavior of primate groups (the science of ethology or animal behavior); also read Robert Axelrod on the evolution of cooperation.

De Waal shows that primate colonies demonstrate moral awareness which is in part taught to each new member. Axelrod shows that there is a survival advantage to cooperation. The evolution of animals that form societies demonstrates the value of cooperation, from ant colonies to primates.

But evolution must work with what came before and in the case of the human brain, we’ve retained elements from early reptiles (mainly promoting sex, obtaining food, and not being killed by predators) to early mammals, with sensitivity to welfare of others evolving a sometimes different set of priorities, as when a mother fights to defend her offspring. We have further built on that developing more sophisticated abilities, such as abstract thought and language. Humans have to learn most of what we use to survive, so that we can adapt to different environments. So we must learn to cooperate. But our different parts of our brains push us in different directions, leading to conflicting urges. The reptile part of our brains says look out for number one, while a different part says protect your family, while our leaders say fight for the fatherland.

I believe that if you put all this together, you get the evolution of religion along with abstract thinking and especially language. Religions promote ethical behavior (cooperation) by linking it to aspects of our experience by which we are most awestruck, both positive and negative, sometimes referred to as the holy or the sacred. For this to work, the linkage from sacred to ethical cooperation does not have to true in an absolute sense, so long as people believe it is true and pass it on to their offspring. This is why, IMHO, religions are so different in their ideas about the afterlife (heaven, hell, reincarnation), the Absolute (God, Tao, Buddha, to name a few), and so on and yet are so similar in the ethics they promote (be nice to people and share and protect your fellows, especially those part of your local group).

Humans no longer need to evolve biologically, since it is easier to adjust the environment and our behavior. But this does not mean evolution has stopped. Hoffstadter, Dennett, and others have pointed out that cultural concepts propagate and evolve using similar mechanisms to biological evolution. If an idea (sometimes called a meme to draw attention to the similarity to a gene) promotes survival, it will be more likely to be passed on. So religion could evolve to allow us to manage our conflicting behavioral urges in order to take full advantage of the benefits offered by cooperation.

Does this mean all religions are just fluffy products of our imaginations? Maybe, but not necessarily. In science we often find that ideas expressed by mathematicians with no intention of modeling real world phenomena usually turn out to actually correspond to what we observe in the physical world. Religion (some at least) might actually be on to important realities of the universe. Most cultures believe in spirits and a spirit reality. Is this just wishful thinking? I think we can see a wide range of experiences people have across cultures and times, that convince them of spiritual reality. I personally think the evidence, taken as a whole is best explained with the reality of a spirit dimension that transcends the physical and hence is not easy to observe with our scientific instruments.

If this is true, then some notion of the Absolute is also in order, even if we can only apprehend it experientially or speak of it with analogies and poetry. Call me mistaken, but don’t call me irrational or superstitious. Same goes for people’s religious beliefs. Respect them with the same open-mindedness a scientist should have for anything he/she does not completely understand.


The idea of different parts of our brains from different stages in our evolution producing ethical dilemmas was introduced to me by Michael Dowd, in Thank God for Evolution. If more proof is needed, he shows that it need not be the case that religion and science must be at odds. His arguments are well thought out and backed up with accurate understanding of human neurology and history. I recommend you read his book. Better yet, listen to him in person the next time he is in your area. He and his wife travel constantly delivering their ideas to open-minded audiences all over the place.