David Sloan Wilson: some types of atheism serve as stealth religions

March 4, 2011 | By | 14 Replies More

In an extraordinary series of postings at Huffington Post (the first installment is here), David Sloan Wilson has taken aim at many people who have been taking aim at the dogmatism and blind faith encouraged by many religions. Yes, many religions encourage between-group conflicts and many of them disparage rational thought, at least when it comes to looking at their own religious tenets.  D.S. Wilson is a careful evolutionary biologist, however, and he takes these common criticisms of religion in a new direction.

D.S. Wilson knows that between-group conflicts aren’t only caused by religion; between-group conflicts are often found in non-human animals such as “ant colonies, lion prides and chimp troops [that] don’t have religion.” As far as rational thought, he asks why brains evolved through natural selection. His answer will be stunning too many and (in my opinion) difficult to refute: the main purpose that brains evolved “is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.” What? Human brains are not the way they are in order to allow humans to be objective and rational beings?

It is at this point that D.S. Wilson carefully distinguished factual realism from practical realism.  Long ago I concluded that there are beliefs that are important, critically important to survival, but not literally true.   It is also clear that the intellect will warp itself to believe something that serves a deep, sometimes ineffable, function even though the belief is literally and demonstrably false. This phenomenon comports with D.S. Wilson’s distinction: A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (Wilson notes, and I agree, that there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. Though many of us skeptics love science and long for objective truth, practical realism can also be “a good thing,” because

Most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place us all in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility it we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.

Factual realism is not always at odds with practical realism. A hunter who needs to make a kill in order to eat in order to help his clan survive, also needs to know “the exact location of his quarry.” It is critically important to recognize that

[O]ur minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That’s what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed is not just wrong but as purpose driven. . . . These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, nonreligious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they can do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

I would suggest that Wilson’s factual realism and practical realism line up nicely with Jonathan Haidt’s little lawyer and his elephant.

D.S. Wilson goes on to harshly criticize those who would equate atheism with pure reason simply because it does not invoke a God. “We need to give atheism a hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Here’s one of the telltale signs. Any worldview that characterizes its own benefits as perfect, immune to criticism and without trade-offs for anyone should be suspect.  Any system of thought that clearly tells the believer what to do should be suspect. Therefore, fundamentalist religions should be recognized as disparaging factual realism for practical realism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism is another easy target (a stealth religion) in that she was treated as an “infallible oracle–the very opposite of reasoned discourse–and members of the movement spent their time casting out false premises as if they were so many demons.”

D.S. Wilson also takes aim at New Atheism (but not all forms of atheism), and regrets to report that new atheism “has all the hallmarks of stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad. He is passionate about exposing new atheism as a stealth religion because “it distracts attention from something far more important and interesting–the proper study of religion and all forms of human mentality from an evolutionary perspective. By recognizing that factual realism is often subservient to practical realism, we can see more clearly how the mind actually works and, perhaps, arrive at some solutions to some of life’s conundrums.

In part two of this series, David Sloan Wilson gave further explanation, in response to many attacks he received regarding first posting. First of all, he defined “stealth religion”

A belief system that distorts the facts of the real world (yes, there is a real world out there, and it does not include people sitting on clouds) for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors. Believes in supernatural agents or a particular distortion of the factual reality and I want to broaden the discussion to include all distortions of factual reality.

Another characteristic of stealth religions is that they require authority figures. “We need to be suspicious about arguments cloaked in forms of authority.” He warns that stealth religions “need not be conscious.” The world that seems to be out there might be three distorted by “mental processes that operate beneath our awareness.

Environmentalism often takes the form of a stealth religion, according to D.S. Wilson. Not all environmentalism, he writes, because we really are faced with many environmental challenges. However, many environmentalists overstate the dangers that we are facing and get away with it, because environmentalism relies upon sophisticated models that are “ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists.”

Should we remain true to factual realism when our uncertainty might be used as excuse for inaction? Is it justified to inflate the risks and conceal our uncertainty to promote planetary survival? Welcome to the trade-offs between factual and practical realism.

Back to the problem of authority:

There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross. How could any self-respecting atheist deny this claim in the abstract,” he asked. Rather than simply declaring that religion is a “disease,” shouldn’t new atheists take a look at all of the following hypotheses about religion offered by evolutionary theory? Those hypotheses include each of the following:

H1 – Religion is a super organism. Religions might forge human groups into cooperative units, whose members work together to achieve common goals (following the works of Emile Durkheim).

H2 – Religions are sneaky ways for religious leaders to exploit the religious followers.

H3- Religions are diseases that are highly evolved “to facilitate their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.” This has been advanced by Richard Dawkins.

H4 – Religion is like a moth to a flame. Sometimes, a trait has no benefit and even is costly, but it remains because it is connected to other traits that do have the benefit. In other words, “perhaps religion is a costly byproduct of psychological traits that function adaptively in nonreligious contexts.”

H5- Religion is like obesity. The urges that make us religious might’ve been adaptive in the Stone Age, but they are no longer adaptive in modern life.

H6 – Religion exists because of genetic drift. It came about by chance.

David Sloan Wilson argues that the evidence is overwhelming that there are no supernatural agents that intervene in natural processes and he contends that religious beliefs are 100% human social constructions. But this conclusion does not explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms. This is where Richard Dawkins and others go wrong, according to D.S.Wilson.  One cannot simply declare religion to be a disease. One must answer both the proximate and ultimate cause questions regarding religion. Proximate cause looks for particular mechanisms to explain the behavior. Ultimate causation looks to natural selection to explain how the organism evolved to be what it is. The six hypotheses listed above thus need to be taken seriously, because they are profoundly different from each other and one would think that the each suggests a different plan of action for dealing with religion.

I’ll skip ahead just for a moment before wrapping up this post. I will also serve as a spoiler in that each of these six hypotheses are plausible pursuant to evolutionary theory and D.S. Wilson declares that each of them is at least partially relevant to “the large collection of traits that we associate with religion.”

[To be continued]

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Category: Evolution, Human animals

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

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  1. Tony Mach says:

    Two thoughts:

    First, I think religion was an evolutionary advantage. Bluntly put, it paid off to have an shaman as an health care provider.

    Second, humans are "explanation machines". They seek patterns and explanations (even where there are none because it is pure chance, see Nassim Taleb for reference). Works mostly great, but not always.

    (AFAIK the moth navigates by keeping an constant angle to the only evolutionary relevant point-type light sources: the sun and the moon. This doesn't work when the light source is near. Well, evolutionray landscapes change, an evolutionary adaptation can be maladaptive when this happens – ditto for religion.)

  2. Tony Mach says:

    And I think that H1 and H3 are not so different (can a religion survive if it is an *complete* disadvantage to its "hosts"?)

    H1 and H2 are no contradiction and can coexist.

    H4 and H5 seem to be related (see my comment above), but H5 seems more to the point (BTW: Obesity was never an adaptive trait, it's a disease-like reaction to the change in evolutionary landscape introduced by cereal-grains and its various phytotoxins. While agriculture was and evolutionary advantage for the group using it, it was an disadvantage to the individual – not everything is pure black or pure white).

    H6 should be expanded, (natural-)religion (as part of human society!) and genotype coevolved and both shaped phenotype and behaviour. Society can be seen as H1 or H3 as well…

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    This is profoundly disappointing, Erich.

    "Any worldview that characterizes its own benefits as perfect, immune to criticism and without trade-offs for anyone should be suspect."

    Yes, I agree. I also agree that this is true of Ayn Rand, who is, as Wilson notes, an easy target. He notably fails to cite any evidence whatsoever that this is true of the modern New Atheists. Who has ever said that atheism is "perfect", "immune to criticism", or "without trade-offs for anyone"? Is this just a straw man Wilson has made up so he can thrash away at it?

    "Any system of thought that clearly tells the believer what to do should be suspect."

    Really? By this incredibly expansive definition, anyone who's ever said anything about morality would be the founder of a "stealth religion". A more accurate definition would be that a stealth religion requires infallible belief in the commandments of an authority, which is a description that is not at all true of New Atheism.

    D.S. Wilson also takes aim at New Atheism (but not all forms of atheism), and regrets to report that new atheism “has all the hallmarks of stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad.

    So since Wilson clearly holds the polarized belief that New Atheism is bad, bad, bad, shouldn't we conclude that he, too, is advocating a religious belief system in disguise?

    David Sloan Wilson argues that the evidence is overwhelming that there are no supernatural agents that intervene in natural processes and he contends that religious beliefs are 100% human social constructions. But this conclusion does not explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms. This is where Richard Dawkins and others go wrong, according to D.S.Wilson.

    Richard Dawkins doesn't "go wrong" about this because he's not going in that direction in the first place. Neither he nor Sam Harris are writing their books to propose a peer-reviewed scientific explanation for why religion exists. David Sloan Wilson is attacking them for not doing something they didn't set out to do. The purpose of the New Atheists' books is to argue that religion is not true, that it is on balance more harmful than beneficial, and that we'd be best served by discarding it. (That said, the memetic explanation of religion which Dawkins discusses briefly is pretty much exactly the same thing as Wilson's "superorganism" idea, so I fail to see the cause of his intense hostility.)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse: I’ve been drowning with work in my day job for the past few weeks, and I do want to give a serious and detailed response to your comment. I offer what follows in this comment as a first installment, with much more to come. I think I have been able to identify where we part ways, and that fork in the road relates to the following excerpt from your comment:

      “Richard Dawkins doesn’t “go wrong” about this because he’s not going in that direction in the first place. Neither he nor Sam Harris are writing their books to propose a peer-reviewed scientific explanation for why religion exists.”

      OK. Fair enough. Neither Dawkins nor Harris is specifically characterizing their books (The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation) as potential submissions for peer-reviewed scientific journals. But neither is either of them proposing that their arguments are not scientific. Richard Dawkins presents himself as a scientist and he more often than not writes (including where I think that he’s run out ahead of the evidence—on the byproduct issue) as a scientist doing science. His scientific opinions are inextricably bound up in his commentary on religion. My problem with some of Mr. Dawkins’ writings is that he conflates his scientific opinions regarding the baseless claims by religious believers, with his purportedly scientific explanations regarding the natural selection, and with his rants about religion (I’m not using “rant” in a pejorative way—I’ve also engaged in many rants about religion and many such rants are justified). He does not take proper care to distinguish where he is opining as a scientist and where not opining as a scientist. My focus is Chapter 5 of The God Delusion, as you’ll see below.

      Before going further, I want to state what should be obvious. I admire many of the writings of the “new atheists” for much of what they have accomplished. With regard to religion, they have successfully blasted away at innumerable wobbly or absurd claims made in the name of religion, using a variety of approaches. For instance, the new atheists have often referred believers to their own holy books to demonstrate mis-readings and cherry-picking. They have suggested that believers need to become more discerning readers of history. And they have done some of their best work shredding religious claims by resorting to first-rate science. They have done a damned good job of embarrassing many believers by offering them extemporaneous educations in mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology and biology. I applaud these efforts—I rarely tire of these contests, and I’ve posted on them quite often at Dangerous Intersection. When the new atheists shoot down religious claims using science, I usually consider them to be acting as scientists utilizing science (I realize that Sam Harris was in the process of getting his Ph.D in neuroscience when he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation).

      It’s important to carefully set forth what I am criticizing. Mr. Dawkins often focuses on these two topics:

      A. He criticizes many of the purportedly factual claims made by religious folks. For example,

      a. The earth is 6,000 year old.

      b. “God” created the universe.

      c. Jesus, and other people who were really and truly dead, became alive again.

      B. He argues that Religion itself is, evolutionarily speaking, a byproduct. It should just been seen as a bad meme that spreads like a virus, and advocates that intelligent people should rise up and eliminate religion worldwide, because religion almost always (perhaps always) a destructive waste of our energies and lives.

      I applaud and encourage Dawkins’ work on A), the unrelenting criticism of the scientifically unsupported claims made by people in the name of religion. Scientific study has proven that the earth is billions of years old. There is no evidence for a sentient creator-god. People who are really dead don’t become alive again. Richard Dawkins continues to lead the charge here, and I applaud his efforts.

      I would like to focus on B) a second major purported use of science by Mr. Dawkins and some of the other new atheists. [I do want to be clear that my criticism is not aimed at Daniel Dennett, who in Breaking the Spell raises the question of whether religious is an evolutionary byproduct, and clearly states that this is a question that needs careful scientific study before we will be in a position to answer it.] For the remainder of this comment, I will focus on the work of Richard Dawkins.

      Again, I admire Richard Dawkins for his successful and appropriate use of science to attack numerous silly and unsubstantiated religious claims (i.e., that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that evolution by natural selection is not supported by evidence). What I am concerned about is this: When it comes to the reason religions exist at all, however, his conclusion (e.g., that religion is a mere byproduct), is not based on rigorous scientific evidence. I suspect that his conclusions regarding the existence of religious groups are the result of his frustration with the assertions and conduct of many people acting in the name of religion, who make groundless assertions that they assert to be factual, while they are entirely unproven or disproven. I share this frustration of Mr. Dawkins—I’ve drawn my fair share of criticism by scientifically ignorant accusers–but I don’t share Dawkins’ conclusions regarding ubiquitous existence of religious groups. I am further convinced that David Sloan Wilson (and others) present a framework for a scientific approach for examining religion. I also suspect that we should not be analyzing religion as a sui generus activity, as Dawkins does. This is one of David Sloan Wilson's major criticisms of the new atheists. Perhaps religion exists on a continuum with other groupish mind-distorting human activities, such as romantic love, patriotism, and many other groupish activities including some forms of atheism.

      But now, Ebonmuse, back to your quote:

      “[The God Delusion] wasn’t meant to be a submission for a peer-reviewed publication.”

      True enough, but why set the standard so high? Don’t all scientists do science on many occasions when they are not writing for peer-reviewed publications? Shouldn’t they be criticized for running ahead of the evidence even when they aren’t writing peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals? Are you suggesting that Richard Dawkins was not offering scientific opinions in the parts of The God Delusion with which I find fault? The God Delusion purports to be scientifically substantiated tome concluding that religion is a byproduct of evolution, that it is aberrant and thus should be wiped out. Dawkins characterizes religion as a “virus.”

      How does Dawkins arrive at these conclusions? I have scoured The God Delusion for the Science, and I have not found any supporting this byproduct conclusion. I focused intensely on Chapter 5 of The God Delusion, titled "The Roots of Religion." This is where Dawkins, writing as a scientist, announces that religion is a “byproduct.” He repeatedly recognizes the need to answer the “ultimate causation” question but only finds evidence supporting “proximate causation.”

      Not to sound too harsh, but just because someone is a scientist, even a great scientist like Richard Dawkins, this doesn’t mean he or she is doing science. Nor does it mean that he is not purporting to do science, even when he isn’t planning to submit his or her work to a scientific peer-reviewed journal.

      What follows, then, is my summary of Chapter 5 of The God Delusion with some of my concerns interspersed in brackets:

      Page 163- Everyone has their own pet theory of where religion comes from, but I want to begin with a "prior question, one that takes precedence for reasons we shall see: a Darwinian question about natural selection."

      Page 163 – We should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favored the impulse to religion."

      Page 164 A Darwinian might be tempted to think that religion is useful for survival (following the adaptation is program articulated by Richard Lewontin).

      Page 164 Religion is time-consuming, energy consuming and extravagantly ornate like the plumage of exotic birds.

      Page 165 what is it for? "What is the benefit of religion?" There are three possible "targets of benefit." A) group selection; an individual may be slaving under the influence of genes in another individual, perhaps a parasite (e.g., the common cold); C) religion has worked for the benefit of something, but it might not be our genes. It might benefit the religious ideas themselves-memes have taken over, operating in a "gene like way, as replicators."

      Page 166 – All cultures have "time-consuming, wealth consuming, hostility provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counterproductive fantasies of religion."

      Page 166 – We can explain the Darwinian advantage of sexual behavior. It's about making babies. But what about religion? When we engage in this costly practice?

      Page 166 – There is "a little evidence" that religious practices protect people from stress-related diseases." But this evidence is not strong.

      Page 167-168 – The placebo effect does not explain the "massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon of religion." It is "not a big enough theory for the job."

      Page 168 – That religion might satisfy our curiosity about the universe is not a Darwinian explanation even though it might be a psychological truth. Such psychological explanations are "proximate, not ultimate, explanations.

      Page 168 – Darwinians make much of this distinction between proximate and ultimate. "The proximate explanation for the explosion in the cylinder of an internal combustion engine involves the sparking plug. The ultimate explanation concerns the purpose for which the explosion was designed: to impel a piston from the cylinder, thereby turning a crank shaft. The proximate cause of religion might be hyper activity in a particular note of the brain. I shall not pursue the neurological idea of a “God center” in the brain because I am not concerned here with proximate questions." "My preoccupation in this chapter is with Darwinian ultimate explanations."

      Page 169 – Even if religion is a tool used by the ruling class to subjugate the underclass, this political explanation is not a Darwinian explanation. "The Darwinian still wants to know why people are vulnerable to the charms of religion and therefore open to exploitation by priests, politicians and Kings.

      Page 169 – We still need a Darwinian explanation about why religion works. Why is there a "lust for gods?"

      Page 169 – Group selection is controversial. David Sloan Wilson promotes the idea. It is "not implausible," but "there are formidable objections to it." I belittle it, but I admit that "in principle it can happen." Group selection theories are "always vulnerable to subversion from within." Mathematical models can identify "special conditions under which group selection might be evolutionarily powerful," . . . but these special conditions are usually unrealistic in nature."

      [This is the entire attack on “group selection.” Note that Dawkins admits that some writers have used the term in a way that did not refer to what is "strictly group selection." I find this analysis wholly unsatisfactory. It fails to address many of the points raised by David Sloan Wilson, as described in the above post and other writers who promote further careful scientific investigation into group selection. Further, “belittling” an idea is not a scientific conclusion.]

      Page 172 – I see religion as a byproduct of something else. Perhaps religion does not have direct survival value, but it is a byproduct of something else that does. It's like moths flying into candle flames. They don't seek out candles, but they are tuned to seeking out celestial objects such as Sun and Moon in order to steer in a straight line.

      [Here, Dawkins announces his conclusion, that he “sees” religion as a byproduct. He offers no scientific studies supporting this conclusion].

      Page 173- Large numbers of people hold religious beliefs that flatly contradict scientific facts, and we do so with passionate certitude. They do so in a way that is costly, and they often die for them or kill for them.

      Page 174 – Religious behavior may be "a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful." The thing that was naturally selected in our ancestors is not religion per se. What is that something else? I am wedded to this general principle, and will suggest an illustration of what kind of thing it might be. Children will have a selective advantage if they believe what they're grown-ups tell them without question, especially when those adults "adopt a solemn minatory tone. [Dawkins then tells a story showing that unquestioning obedience can go awry].

      [It appears that “byproduct” is being defined by metaphor as a “misfiring.” It is not “useful.” These terms raise red flags for me. They also raise challenges as to how one might be able to design an experiment or interpret the resulting data.]

      Page 176 – "Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analog of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable byproduct is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses." These meanings are passed on "using the same infectious gravitons of manner" from these children to their own children.

      [This is one of the many bits of evidence pointing to proximate cause, not ultimate cause].

      Page 177- Pascal Boyer, Robert Hinde and Scott Atran have also "promoted the general idea of religion as a byproduct of normal psychological dispositions."

      [This seems to be a bout of abject name-dropping, rather than a scientific analysis]

      Page 179 – The idea of byproducts grows out of the developing field of evolutionary psychology. "Religion can be seen as a byproduct of the misfiring of several [modules]", for example modules performing theories of other minds, forming coalitions, and discriminating in favor of in group members and against strangers.

      Page179- Paul Bloom thinks that children have a natural tendency to have a dualistic theory of mind, which makes them susceptible to religious claims. He also "suggests" that children are predisposed to be creationists, because intelligent design is less intuitive. Children are "native teleologists, and many never grow out of it."

      [Interesting idea. This is only a just-so story, though, and not scientific evidence pointing to an ultimate cause].

      Page 181-3 – Discussion of Daniel Dennett's "intentional stance," which also makes people susceptible to dualism. Paul Bloom refers to experiments in which children are especially likely to adopt the intentional stance.

      Page 184 – Justin Barrett claimed the phrase "hyperactive agent detective device." We "hyperactive late detect agents where there are none."

      [But these again seem to be proximate causes, not ultimate causes]

      Page 184 Daniel Dennett suggests that the irrationality mechanism in our brain that is cooperative is tied up with our ability to fall in love. "Evolutionary psychologists agree cause quote that irrationality involved in romance "could be a mechanism to ensure loyalty to one co-parent, lasting for long enough to rear a child together."

      [this is another just so story]

      Page 188 "The general theory of religion as an accidental byproduct – a misfiring of something useful- is the one I wish to advocate. The details are various, complicated and disputable."

      [Scientists are not noted for “advocating” in the absence of evidence; here, Dawkins told us in the beginning that the issue was ultimate causation]

      Page 189 There were alternatives to natural selection.- Genetic drift explains some characteristics. Further, the cultural equivalent of genetic drift "is a pervasive option, one that we cannot neglect when thinking about the evolution of religion." Such drifting explains the specific differences among many languages. Religions are like languages in that they about with randomness.

      [This could be. But it is a scientific question. Where is the careful scientific evidence on which we might be able to make some dependable conclusions regarding this issue?]

      Page 190 – Culture provides the details of the various religions, even though natural selection might produce psychological dispositions that produce religion as a byproduct.

      Page 199 – Some religious ideas might survive because of merit.

      [Dawkins offers a list of these, though they once again constitute a list of mirror proximate causes, not ultimate]

      Page 202 – Discussion of cargo cults.

      Page 206 -This chapter is most of what Dawkins will have to say about the "roots of religion itself."

      There are days when I suspect that Richard Dawkins is correct that religion is some sort of evolutionary “byproduct” in the sense that it is not an adaptation. But this is a scientific issue that will require both careful experimentation as well as some definitional work (“byproduct”). Ernst Mayr, writing What Evolution Is at the age of 98, gives us a good idea of the hard definitional and scientific work ahead, and I’ll end this extremely long comment with several excerpts from What Evolution Is. Mayr was discussing biology in general here, but these same considerations should apply to the scientific study of religion:

      Page 149 –

      "A trait is adaptive if it enhances the fitness (however defined) of an organism, that is, if the trade contributes to the survival and/or better reproductive success of an individual or social group. Or: an adaptation is a property of an organism, whether a structure, a physiological trait, a behavior, or any other attribute, the possession of which favors the individual in the struggle for existence. We believe that most such traits required by natural selection or, if they arose by chance, their maintenance was favored by selection. In determining what qualifies as an adaptation, it is the here and now that counts. It is irrelevant for the classification of a trait as an adaptation whether it had the adaptive quality from the very beginning, like the external skeleton of the arthropod, or acquired it by a change of function, like the swimming pedal of a dolphin… The recognition of an adaptation is facilitated if it also occurs in other preferably unrelated organisms living in a similar environment, or if the adaptive quality of the character can be modified by appropriate experiments. One way to assess adaptations is by studying the variation of the adaptive character in variable natural populations.

      Page 150

      The legitimate use of the term adaptation is for a property of an organism, whether a structure, a physiological trait, a behavior or anything else that the organism possesses, that is favored by selection over alternative traits. But the term also has been used quite incorrectly for the process ("adaptation") by which the favored trait was actively acquired. . . . In this view “adaptation” is an active process with a teleological basis. For some reason authors still seem to look at adaptation as such a process and therefore reject the whole concept of adaptation. But this is not defensible.

      Adaptation is a completely a posteriori phenomenon for a Darwinian; that is it is based on the inductive assessment of facts. In every generation, all individuals that survive the process of elimination are de facto "adapted" and so are their properties that enable them to survive. Elimination does not have the "purpose" or the "teleological goal" of producing adaptation; rather, adaptation is a byproduct of the process of elimination.

      To avoid the ambiguity of the word adaptation, it is preferable to use the word adapted this for the state of being adapted. There is, however, no reason not to use the term adaptation for a property acquired or maintained by natural selection because it provided superior survival chances in competition with other individuals.

      (Page 154) How can one prove that certain individuals as well as their structures and behaviors are truly well adapted? This is a valid and indeed a very important question. It can be answered mainly by the ever repeated and severe testing of the supposedly adaptive attributes of organisms.

      (Page 118) "To be fit means to possess certain properties that increase the probability of survival."

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Tonight, I’d like to add a few more thoughts on this critically important topic of the evolutionary analysis of religion:

    Determining whether a trait is an “adaptation” or a “byproduct” isn’t something a scientist simply declares—it can’t be accomplished from an armchair. Regarding any species other than human animals, biologists would generally agree that examining this issue requires considerable scientific work. The same should hold true for human animals. Further, these concepts are tricky to tease apart. Determining whether “religion” can be considered a “trait” and whether that trait is a byproduct (versus being an adaptation or being neutral) is something that will require a lot of work, and it appears to me that this scientific work is only now beginning. That it’s time to get serious about the science is one of Daniel Dennett’s main points in Breaking the Spell. It’s time for scientists to roll up their sleeves and treat “religion” as a phenomenon to be examined scientifically. It should no longer be cordoned off with a special privilege.

    It seems to me that Richard Dawkins (and he is by no means alone in holding this position) has decided, in the absence of serious scientific inquiry, that religion is an evolutionary byproduct. He is “advocating” this position in The God Delusion. This doesn’t sound right at all. Scientists shouldn’t be “advocating” positions; they should be following the evidence wherever it leads.

    The topic is “religion,” but I believe that it’s a big mistake to focus on the culturally-infused utterances and ceremonies that common folks refer to as “religion.” I suspect that it will be more fruitful scientifically to focus on the ubiquitous phenomenon whereby human animals become groupish in such a way that the knitting of the social fabric is accompanied by (and I suspect, assisted by) cognitive distortions. This combination can be seen in groupings of many sizes and types. Couples falling in love; thousands of fans bonding over the “critically important need” for their sports team to prevail in the playoffs; families who insist on the truth of obviously exaggerated stories of accomplishments of family members; schools (and alums) who know that the X Department is the “best” X Department in the world (despite their ignorance regarding most other X Departments at most other universities; armies convinced that enemy soldiers are sub-human; countries full of people who each insist that they are some sort of special or chosen people. I could go on and on. My point is that what we commonly refer to as “religions” are merely one type of a generally-recurring phenomenon.

    The cognitive distortions experienced by these groupings are invisible to members of the in-group. But members of out-groups can clearly see that ALL of these grouping involve cognitive disconnects from objective evaluations of evidence. Again, instances of these groupings are ubiquitous. All of them display much in common with the cognitive distortions and groupishness seen with religions. Admittedly, religions are different in that they tend to involve certain types of myths and certain types of costly displays, but all of these groupings (religious and otherwise) have much in common, including myth-making and costly displays.

    What I have written above would seem to sum up a fantastic opportunity to do some tedious yet potentially rewarding science. The other side of that coin is that we shouldn’t be simply declaring whether any instance of this general phenomenon is a “byproduct.” I fear that this is where Richard Dawkins has allowed his emotions to get the better of him. Religious people have been getting in his face and disparaging his fine work on evolution for decades, and I would suspect that this constant confrontation has taken a toll on Dawkins. I say this because Chapter 5 of The God Delusion consists of a giant leap in declaring “religion” to be a byproduct without doing any of the conceptual or experimental work necessary to make this dramatic finding. I’ve quoted Ernst Mayr in the post above to suggest the conceptual and scientific magnitude of this project. I will now suggest another article that lays out the work that needs to be done in order to declare whether “religion” is adaptive or whether it is a byproduct: “The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program,” by Richard Sosis, an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut. http://www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/sosis/publicati

    In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins presents himself as an evolutionary biologist who is scientifically weighing in on the topic of religion. And even though it is not presented as a peer-reviewable writing, The God Delusion does present itself as a science book written by a scientist. Dawkins makes great use of the cachet of science throughout his book. Certainly, Dawkins has never said that his scientific background is irrelevant to his opinions on religion. He has never suggested that his opinions regarding the “roots” of religion are not scientific. Given that he is claiming to use science to come to his conclusion that religion is an evolutionary “byproduct,” how did Dawkins get from here to there? Where is the science?

    When he’s smacking down bizarre claims of religious believers—it reminds me of whack-a-mole—Dawkins brings his science front and center. Why is the earth actually much older than 6,000 years? Dawkins delivers in fine scientific fashion. Why is it that natural selection is a fantastically successful scientific explanation for the existence of human animals? Dawkins delivers, using ironclad science.

    The situation is vastly different when Dawkins merely declares “religion” to be a “byproduct.” This word, “byproduct” sends up red flags for me. “Byproduct” is one of those Rorschach-like terms that invite emotions to be unconsciously be injected into the term, yet it will nonetheless seem objective and neutral to the user. Dawkins claims that “religion” (I’m keeping “religion” in scare quotes because the scope of the phenomenon is very much in dispute) is a byproduct in a way that appears to be pejorative, not strictly scientific. It appears to be off-the-cuff, and not based on a careful analysis. This casual use of the term “byproduct” should make us all wary.

    Put the shoe on the other foot to see the problem in a more stark way. Think of how frustrating it is to hear conservatives ranting about homosexuals. Then consider how it is even more frustrating to hear conservatives employing emotion disguised as science to drum up support for their “scientific” opinions that gays are “deviant.” Conservatives often engage in non-scientific rants using the cachet of science for cover. Then they conclude that homosexuality is an “aberration” = “deviancy” when what they are actually doing is displaying their frustration with homosexuality (see here http://www.conservapedia.com/Causes_of_Homosexual… ).

    All of us need to be extremely careful as we move forward on the topic of religion, especially those of us who (understandably) feel great frustration (as do I) with the numerous unceasing and outlandish claims made by people in the name of religion.

    There is an impressive body of scientific work now being generated on the topic of “religion.” I think that all of us need to double our efforts to make sure that when we claim to be making scientific claims about this complex social phenomenon of “religion,” that we are putting aside our frustrations with wacky-seeming people and really and truly honoring the best of what science has to offer.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Susan Blackmore's change of heart on religion as an adaptation. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/11/08/susan

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    At e-skeptic, Richard Dawkins responds to the criticism levied by David Sloan Wilson. http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/07-07-11/

    I am not at all persuaded by Dawkins' response. I don't see that he has pointed to any science supporting his proposition that religion (or groupish social phenomena of which religion is but one example) is not adaptive. It appears to me that Dawkins has substituted invective in place of rigorous scientific inquiry on this issue.

    As I've often pointed out, however, Dawkins is otherwise a brilliant scientist who has made mincemeat of many of the unscientific claims asserted by believers.

  7. Taul Sill says:

    Deeply disappointing responses here, re. The God Delusion. I stumbled upon this late I’m afraid but still, it’s frustrating to see the strength of the criticism levelled at Dawkins for daring to speculate on the evolutionary origins of religion, because speculation is what Dawkins engages in in the chapter in question. Even the quoted sections in the posts above contain clear examples of the cautious, bet-hedging language used throughout the T.G.D. chapter from which they are taken – “perhaps”-es, “if”s and “may be”s are used throughout by Dawkins. At no point does he claim to be proposing a conclusive, empirically irrefutable scientific theory. Rightly, considering the lack of definitive evidence either way. Throughout, he reminds the reader that this issue is far from settled.

    The purpose of The God Delusion is implicit. It is a deeply sceptical look at the ontological and ethical claims made by religion. It isn’t an exploration of its evolutionary underpinnings. Indeed, when one chapter had to be sheared from the audiobook version, Dawkins admits he had little difficulty in settling upon chapter 5 as the sacrificial lamb.

    Many of the chapter criticisms posted here would be quite valid if Dawkins had intended to write a definitive, experimentally-supported overview of the field that came down conclusively on one side or another. He didn’t so they don’t.

  8. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I think, that for some people, atheism is a religion, because for them, instead of a disbelief in the existence of a deity, they believe in the absence of a deity. The concept is difficult to put into words. It is founded in the difference between faith and skepticism and how they relate to belief and disbelief.

    When I was at Tenn., there were many of my classmates who, having found no answers in christian beliefs, dabbled in a Satanism because they thought it was an anti-religion. Most quickly realized that it was an alternate religion that also offered no answers to their problems and quickly gave up on it. A few clung to it a bit longer before converting back to christianity with a vengeance.

    The latter group were mostly kids who had a difficult time growing up. For them, belief in the supernatural gave them hope for a better future in a world they felt they had no control over. They needed to believe in something. Some people approach atheism in a similar way. Religion hasn’t worked for them, they may be embittered by their circumstances, and decide to become anti-theists by declaring as an article of faith that there is no god. They approach atheism as if it were a religion because they only know how to be religious.

    Those of us that are true non believers in the supernatural, have a different world view. Speaking from my own viewpoint, I am not driven by some great promise of future reward. Instead I am motivated by an insatiable curiosity. I’ve found the best way to address my thirst for knowledge is to filter out the vast amounts for dis-information and mis-information by being skeptical of almost everything.

    Even with this approach, I have occasionally gotten fooled.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    On the issue of factual realism from practical realism:

    “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk
    Dan M. Kahan*
    Cultural cognition is one of a variety of approaches designed to empirically test the “cul-tural theory of risk” set forth by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. The basic premise of cultural theory is that individuals can be expected to form beliefs about societal dan-gers that reflect and reinforce their commitments to one or another idealized form of so-cial ordering. Among the features of cultural cognition that make it distinctive among conceptions of cultural theory are its approach to measuring individuals’ cultural worldviews; its empirical investigation of the social psychological mechanisms that con-nect individuals’ risk perceptions to their cultural worldviews; and its practical goal of enabling self-conscious management of popular risk perceptions in the interest of pro-moting scientifically sound public policies that are congenial to persons of diverse out-looks.”

    https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1123807

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