The impending publication of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is as good an excuse as any other for reviving the slightly stalled Jurisdynamics series, Genesis for the rest of us. In addition, Kristi Bowman and Andrew Torrance have been writing at BioLaw about creationist pressure on science education and the legal system in general. It's time to rejoin the fray.
To recap: My most recent installment, Mother superior, explored the misogynistic nature of Genesis' second creation myth and the implications of that misogyny for contemporary environmental policy. Before diving into Genesis' third creation myth -- that of Noah, the ark, and the flood -- I believe that this series would benefit from an extended detour into an exploration of creationist mythology as an adaptive exercise in its own right. Strangely enough, the rise and persistence of creation myths can be construed as a backhanded way of weaving religion into a consilient overview of evolutionary theory.
The God Delusion and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon pose the question as bluntly as it has ever been posed: Why would anyone believe in God? In a 2004 book by that name, Justin Barrett tried, thoughtfully and successfully, to answer that question. Barrett's answer, delivered much less confrontationally than Dennett's similarly reasoned conclusion, is that religion is a product of human adaptation, which itself is guided by the evolutionary process of natural selection. Barrett's conclusion, in turn, had been foreshadowed by earlier works such as Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001) and E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the Heart: Emotions, Belief, and the Environment (1996).
Stripped of all mystery, religion is human behavior. Accordingly, its origins and significance can be illuminated by evolutionary analysis. As Stewart Guthrie wrote in Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), "religion . . . is continuous with other systems of thought and action such as science, art, and common sense." On closer examination, religious belief appears to be adaptive. In other words, religion persists because at some point in the natural history of the human species, religious belief conferred an advantage at the margin. Believers lived and reproduced. Their counterparts fared less well.
Thanks to the adaptive instincts that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce more successfully at the margin, we humans systematically interpret ambiguous evidence as being caused by a living agent rather than an abiotic alternative. Put simply, we never wonder what went bump in the night, but who. This cognitive bias prompts proactive responses to threats to survival and to opportunities to reproduce.
In other words, the portion of the human brain dedicated to agency detection has taken sides in its own variant of Pascal’s wager. Unless the cost of a proactive response is prohibitive, humans do well to respond to ambiguous stimuli as if some sort of agent existed. Betting in favor of a living agent often spells the difference between survival and death. Or it might reveal a previously undetected reproductive opportunity.
On this account, religion condenses a wide range of unseen agents into a single anthropomorphic deity or a single group of anthropomorphic deities. A creationist account of origins, such as the sacred narrative shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, seems singularly appealing to the adapted mind. Rock-a-my-soul in the bosom of Abraham.
This explanation seems far more persuasive than a frequently offered alternative: that religion appeals because it comforts the believer. Comfort? Like hell. Entire swaths of religious dogma are dedicated to scaring the bejesus out of adherents. Believers might try to persuade themselves that the reward of faith is a guarantee of eternal life. In evolutionary terms, the price of faith is eternal vigilance . . . which in turn might lead to a marginally longer life with enhanced reproductive prospects. But evolution makes no promises. Time and chance happen to them all.
Whatever the merits of his other ideas, Karl Marx totally misunderstood the origins of a belief in God and the impact of that belief on broader human society. Stay awake and watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Lord. Religion is not the opiate of the masses, but rather the ephedrine.
Next in this series: Born to believe.