The Evolution of Religion
It’s been an interesting decade for thinking about religion. After 9/11 it finally dawned on people that religion wasn’t going away and that ignorance about it might well be debilitating. Many did not cotton to this news; the “New Atheists” represented not so much an intellectual challenge to religious belief, but rather an adolescent cri de coeur from those who felt their fervent unbelief beleaguered by reality and their Voltairean pieties insulted by the course of history. Cornered smugness is never pretty.
Soon several counter-thinkers came forward to return the compliment, abusing the abusers with contempt for their mistakes and scorn for their intellectual fantasies.1 More recently still, a wave of “New New Atheists” has emerged, exemplified by thinkers such as Alain de Botton and the team of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. They grant the value of some facets of religion, such as transcendence (what Kelly and Dreyfus call the “whoosh”) and, echoing antecedents like Auguste Comte, social ordering, but they affirm the generic idea of religion as at best a human-only institution so that they may dump all the awkward bits, like theology, metaphysics and that sort of thing. The superficial understanding and charity they offer to religion is a dodge, of course, but at least they’re polite about it.
Unfortunately (or not), all of this turns out to have been a distraction, for a different approach to understanding religion has been growing in sophistication and thoughtfulness. This is the approach developing out of evolutionary theory, often combining psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and human biology to offer a picture of what religion does for humans, and why it does it. The good news here is that this approach sometimes spins up illuminating pictures of religion, putting the various modes of belief and practice that humans have developed in broader, often enlightening contexts. The bad news is that it can easily fail to take the concrete details of religions seriously, treating them as just so much data to be processed on the way to some larger, more general claim about the evolutionary adaptability of something generic called “religion.” This is more or less the difference in practice between explaining religion and explaining it away. The former whets the appetite for intimate knowledge; the latter wants to feed us a canned and homogenized pablum of generalities.