Thursday, December 25, 2008

Evolutionary Explanation of Religion

As a Christian (and as a pastor) I confess faith in a creator. At the same time, I accept the findings of science that suggest that we have evolved from a common ancestor of all that exists. In other words, there was a time when our ancestors were not human. I accept the findings that the universe is billions of years old and the earth is also ancient -- giving time for evolution to take place.

The question is, if we have evolved, where does God fit in? And, beyond that, how did religion emerge into existence. What we know of modern religion didn't just burst on the scene fully developed. We know that primitive communities developed religious practices early on -- probably animist in nature. The question has always been why?

Asking questions such as these can be a bit dangerous for pastors/theologians, because it holds out the possibility that religion -- including my own -- are simply biological adaptations, with no ultimate reality standing behind them. I understand the dangers, and yet there is something to be learned from the study of the development of religion within the human community -- from an evolutionary perspective.

Today, looking across the New York Times web site I ran across a most interesting interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Wilson admits to being an atheist, but he sees value in religion. Indeed, he believes that religion emerged because it serves as a glue, a means of social cohesion.

Wilson has recently written Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press). According to the article "Dr. Wilson argues that the religious impulse evolved early in hominid history because it helped make groups of humans comparatively more cohesive, more cooperative and more fraternal, and thus able to present a formidable front against bands of less organized or unified adversaries."

Faith he says:
allows you to keep going even in the absence of information, evidence or immediate gratification, and which everybody needs, and it takes forgiveness, which is what you ask for when you transgress, and it reworks these modules, to put it crudely, and tries to set them in a permanent ''on'' position.

In other words, faith helps make sense of the world and enables you to advance through life even when you don't have all the answers.

Of course, by providing a foundation for social cohesion, it can also serve to define the outsider in negative ways, giving support to efforts to destroy the other.

Religions and other social organizations may preach kindness and cooperation within the group, but they often say nothing about those outside the group, and may even promote brutality toward those beyond the brotherhood of the hive.

This aspect of religion is possible, but not a necessary aspect of religion! It is possible, he says, to expand the circle. That is a hopeful possibility!


12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am a little confused at your destination on this post. It would be easy to race to one conclusion, but I think it could be the wrong one. When entering this conversation, I simply race to the end. Time is linear.. so who started time? Of course you hear Big Bang.. so it begs, what created the material that "banged"? Science fails to answer the starting point. Evolution as a theory also breaks down when you push on it in a hard way. For instance, why are humans the only one with a conscience? If survival of the fittest is how nature works... why do we punish Hitler, rather than lift him up as the ultimate believer in survival in the fittest?

Understanding these are extremes.. but my understanding is science was designed originally to study the works of God. In the process, science became greater than God. Or simply "we went from worshiping the Creator to the created". All said, I claim on ultimate truth in this area and love to hear how others wrestle with this issue.

-Chuck

Gary said...

Many evolutionists understand that if evolution is true, then the Bible cannot be true. They are correct.

Those, like yourself, who believe that evolution is true and yet claim to believe in Christianity are living in a fantasy. It is impossible to reconcile evolution with the Bible. And without the Bible, any so-called "Christianity" becomes nothing more than the baseless opinions of those who imagine they can somehow reconcile evolution with Christianity.

Christianity is a fact-based religion. It is rooted and grounded in history. If you reduce that factual history to the category of fiction, or sybolism, or myth, you destroy Christianity. And that is what must happen, if evolution is true.

To say "I am a Christian evolutionist" is roughly the same as saying "I am a Christian atheist". Anyone with half a brain can immediately see the logical inconsistancy of those kinds of statements. Which begs the question, Why can't you see it?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

To Chuck and Gary, I'd like to suggest you read Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. It is written by Daniel Harrell, pastor of the historic evangelical Park Street Church in Boston. Harrell is an evangelical with a high view of scripture. This book is written not to the skeptic of religion, but to the one who would deny the evidence of science.

Just a side note, Park Street was pastored by Harold Ockenga for years -- Ockenga, besides being president of Fuller also presided over Gordon Conwell.

Science is and has always been, the search for truth. Science isn't bigger than God, it simply seeks to explain reality.

Gary said...

Bob,

I've read a couple of excerpts from Mr. Harrell's book. Mr. Harrell does the same thing that everyone does who tries to reconcile Christianity with evolution: he pretends that the Bible is myth in those places, like Genesis, where God recorded history.

I think another big mistake is being made by you and others who believe like you do: you mistake evolutionary theory for real science. It isn't. It is religion/philosophy. For instance, no one has ever observed one kind of animal evolve into another kind. There are no experiments that have ever been done that would prove such a thing ever happened. In short, there is no credible evidence that could legitimately be called "science" that proves evolution is true. If you can't observe it, and if you can't test it, then it can't be called science.

Anonymous said...

Bob, I will see about picking up a copy to read. May I recommend Ben Stein's movie Expelled? Its a pretty good movie on the issue of Intelligent Design. I will concede there are points he goes a little over the top, but the basic premise is strong.

Maybe the simple thought for me is.. God made it.. the details are for science to figure out. Whether the earth was made in billions of year or 7 days.. I don't think it changes who God is or His significance in our lives. But if we say religion is something we create to make us feel good.. then clearly a line for me has been crossed that I can not support.

-Chuck

John said...

I think I have a high view of Scripture, though others might disagree. But in my view nothing in Scripture should ever conflict with observable, provable truth. When it does, we have misunderstood the intended lessons of Scripture, and likely mistaken as factual that which was intended as metaphor, or mistaken as historical that which was intended as parable.

Truth is what God made it, and I think it sacrilegious to hide from a divinely created truth behind a flawed human interpretation of Scripture. Not that science is infallible, but when science explains what has been perceived as simple magic, it should not be rejected out of hand. The process which science has discerned is no less miraculous, for all of its complexity.

What looked to the ancients like a moving Sun (and which is so described in Scripture) is now understood to be an illusion created by the movement of the earth. To suggest that the evidence of science in this regard is mistaken because Scripture disagrees is foolishness and in no wise respectful of the gifts of God, in Nature and in Scripture.

3,000 years ago humanity had no experiential foundation to understand the truths which modern science would eventually ferret out of creation, so divine revelation 3,000 years ago was couched in terms they could understand, with the lessons for modernity even then imbedded there to be discerned. But so long as we claim to be bound by the scientific limitations of our ancestors we will only be able to discern the lessons intended for them, in their age, and miss entirely the lessons preserved for us in our age.

Chuck's first post got me to thinking about the Tower of Babel story: when humanity, in its hubris, sought to reach God through its science, God interfered and placed the stumbling block of languages in our way, forcing humanity to re-think our relationship with God and with our fellow humans. But God did not deny humans the ability to build the tower again, in the fullness of time, and with a proper regard for who God is.

The lesson for me here is not merely an historical one (don't build high towers?), but instead is about the uses and misuses of science. When humans exceed limits which God imposes, failure is to be expected. But when science is undertaken with a proper regard for God, God can only be glorified in the undertaking. Science and truth are not enemies of God, but creations of God, given to humans to better understand and communicate with God and with the creation which God has gifted to us.

To doggedly reject the evidence presented by the best science we have today, based on the intellectual and experiential limitations of primitive societies is to limit God and the complexity of God's creation. It is tantamount to arguing that God is incapable of such complexity and that God is limited to working by magic. Not that miracles don't happen - sometimes the miracles are just so complex and so great that they cannot be seen as such.

Would evolution be any less a miracle than the magic of instant creation from dust - if evolution indeed was a mechanism employed by God in creation?

John

Gene said...

"If you can't observe it, and if you can't test it, then it can't be called science."

That's like saying the only way to determine if the sun is hot is to steer the ship right towards it and find out for yourself.

Gary said...

Gene,

How would you determine the sun was hot?

I would do it by feeling the heat from it, which can be done right here on earth. Wouldn't that be a scientific test? I might even try to measure how much heat the sun was emitting by using a thermometer.

John said...

Gary,

How do you know the sun is hot? Isn't it so that the air on the earth is made warm by the rays of non-heat bearing energy from the sun. Perhaps the sun itself is cool, after all.

John

Gary said...

John,

How do I know the sun is hot? I can feel the heat from it.

The sun is cool? That's the first time I've heard that.

Becky said...

Pator Bob

I recommend the books, Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer and In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran as even better books than David Sloan Wilson's but on the same subject. Fascinating stuff.
Cheers

John said...

I am not a scientist, but I think the space between the earth and the sun is cool. The various forms of radiation coming from the Sun would likely cook you, like a microwave, but not waves of heat because there is no air or other medium through which the sun's heat can convect. When the sum's radiation strikes earth's atmosphere the atmosphere is energized and begins to heat up, causing the warmth you feel.

My point was that your experience of heat from the sun has led you to the false assumption that the heat you are experiencing originated as heat radiated directly from the sun to the earth. If your basic experiential premise (I feel heat emanating directly from the sun) is wrong, then perhaps your conclusion (the sun is hot) is also open to question. There is no theoretical obstacle to the notion of processes which generate cool or thermally neutral radiation (i.e. cold fusion).

The point is the only way we know the sun is hot is by extrapolating from our experiences with forms of radiation we are familiar with, by discerning and measuring the kinds of forces at work on the sun and by making some theoretical conclusions as to what is actually going on there. We surely don't turn to the Bible (which tels us that God made the sun stand still) for an explanation of the nuclear forces at work on the sun.

John