Transcript: Podcast 13- The Evolution of Belief?

14 December 2007

For today’s episode we’re going to take a look at evolutionary theories of belief. Atheists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have recently written some popular level discussions of such theories in their new books, making this issue all the more important for Christians to address. In this podcast I will address what impact these theories, even if successful, have on the Christian faith. For the book review this month we’ll take a look at Time and Eternity by William Lane Craig. We actually have two audience questions to address in this show, the first one takes another look at Pascal’s Wager and the second looks at the question, “Even if the design argument is true, how do we know if it is the Christian God?” Before all that, however, there are some important developments in the news,

News

Last episode I talked about the lawsuit brought against the Westboro Baptist Church by Albert Snyder. Recent developments in the case have since occurred. The federal jury judged against the Westboro Church and awarded Snyder $11 million dollars in the case. 1 The Church plans to appeal the decision. Hopefully this case will stop the Westboro Church from continuing their picketing.

Many people who follow the intelligent design movement, and even many who don’t, have undoubtedly heard of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”- a parody religion started by Bobby Henderson. The rise of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism came about during the debate in Kansas over whether intelligent design should be taught in public school science classes, which took place in 2005. Henderson, in an attempt to parody the ID movement, wrote a letter to the Kansas School Board, claiming that there is evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe, and that this theory should also be given equal time in the classroom. Since that letter was written, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism has become a tremendous cultural phenomenon. Henderson’s site at venganza.org, which is updated frequently, even contains a popular store with more memorabilia than you could ever desire, and the so-called “Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” is available on Amazon.

In reality, the Flying Spaghetti Monster fails as a successful parody of Intelligent Design, since it is in fact compatible with the ID movement. One of the main contentions of Intelligent Design advocates is that it is impossible to infer the nature of the designer from the fact of design. Thus, it is entirely true, that on the basis of Intelligent Design alone, either God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster could be responsible for the design observed. Thus, if anything, the religious parody actually supports a major tenet of Intelligent Design theory. It shows that Intelligent Design is not inherently religious because it does not necessarily rely on the existence of the Christian God.

In any case, a group of young religious scholars has organized a panel on the parody religion at the prestigious gathering of the American Academy of Religion. 2 The panel is titled, “Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody.” The scholars intend to use the parody religion as a springboard to discuss the question of what defines religion.

Finally, the Golden Compass, an adventure movie set to open December 7, has come under some intense criticism from many in the Christian community. 3 They argue that the movie promotes atheism and denigrates Christianity. The Golden Compass is based on a book of the same name written by Philip Pullman, an atheist who admits to writing anti-Christian themes into his literature. In fact, he has expressed amusement over the fact that Harry Potter books have come under greater criticism from the Christian Community, saying

“I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything old Harry has said.”

Apparently, however, the anti-Christian themes of the book have been toned down in the movie. In any case, I’m not sure that boycott is the most effective strategy to deal with these kinds of challenges. Parents simply need to inform their kids, but it will do little good to try to shelter them from culture. Ultimately, this is a decision that parents will have to make themselves.

Main Feature: The Evolution of Belief

Christians and other religious adherents sometimes claim that the universal tendency to believe in God is itself evidence for God’s existence. Where else does such a predisposition come from? In every corner of the globe and every span of human history, belief in God, immortality, and salvation have occupied the human mind. This makes a good deal of sense if God has purposely created us with a tendency to believe, but atheists have no plausible explanation for the origin, development, and thriving of religion.

However, nonbelievers have countered by claiming that religious belief can be explained with recourse to neuroscience and the biological theory of evolution. This idea, though it has been around for quite some time, is now finding its way into popular literature. Two recent examples include philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon 4 and Richard Dawkins’ bestseller The God Delusion. 5 In Breaking the Spell, Dennett suggests that modern religions have evolved from ancient folk beliefs. Dawkins contends that religious beliefs are self-replicating cultural memes that originated as byproducts of evolutionary selection processes.

Have thinkers like Dennett and Dawkins, and a slew of other neuroscientists, biologists, and philosophers, shown that religious beliefs are irrational after all? Or, is the widespread prevalence of religious belief still a fact which is best explained as a result of God’s influence? In this episode I want to address three questions; 1.) are there plausible naturalistic accounts of the origin and spread of religious beliefs? 2.) If there are such plausible accounts, does this undercut the rationality of religious beliefs? 3.) Is the origin and flourishing of religious belief evidence for God’s existence?

How might religious belief be explained by a naturalistic theory? One might start by looking at the benefits of religion. If belief provides some sort of survival advantage, then natural selection may have assisted in the spread of religion.

The problem here seems to be that we don’t have any knock-down evidence one way or the other. Daniel Dennett suggests that credulous humans who believed in the supernatural were more susceptible to the placebo effect, a key component of the effectiveness of shamans and mystics. Other possibilities of survival advantages proffered by religion include stress alleviation and strengthened community bonds. However, the data is simply insufficient to conclude that religion is overall beneficial from a health and survivability perspective, especially due to a counterbalancing of harmful factors. Richard Dawkins claims that it is difficult to take seriously the idea that religion is beneficial enough to explain its widespread adoption. Religion often causes rather than relieves stress. Moreover, common religious practices such as child sacrifice and self-mutilation hardly seem to be beneficial for the propagation of homo sapiens.

Dawkins, however, claims that religion does not need to be directly beneficial to our species, rather, it may simply be an unfortunate byproduct of something else which is beneficial. Dawkins lays out his own theory in his book The God Delusion. He claims that religion is the byproduct of two separate phenomenon. The first is the tendency, especially for children, to be gullible. It is beneficial for children to trust their parents and other elders, and so it is actually beneficial for young children to be rather gullible. The second tendency is our predisposition to believe in dualism and our presumption of intentionality. Dualism is the idea that we have a soul or a mind which somehow animates our body, and the presumption of intentionality is simply our tendency to believe that things have a purpose. Thus, humans (especially children) naturally believe that there is a soul within but separate from the body, and they also assume that naturalistic phenomenon have some sort of intentionality or purpose. For example, a child will naturally believe that tree stumps are for sitting and flowers are for smelling.

Since people are naturally inclined to believe that there is some sort of overarching intentionality behind things like lightning, thunderstorms, and disease, folk religions developed to explain these phenomenon. And, since children are naturally gullible, these beliefs quickly and easily spread.

Dawkins’ provocative theory doesn’t really have any substantial evidential backing, but it does seem to be a relatively reasonable hypothesis about the origin of religious belief. And, his theory is only one among a great variety of theories aimed at explaining the phenomenon of religion. Our current conclusion about the success of such theories should be, I think, that while none of them has sufficient evidential support, there are some relatively plausible naturalistic scenarios out there. This brings us to our second question. If we grant the nonbeliever that there are successful, or at least potentially successful, accounts of religious belief, then have we given up the game? Do such theories undercut the rationality of belief?

Here the answer has to be an emphatic ‘no.’ Even if philosophers and scientists like Dennett and Dawkins were perfectly successful in creating a theory of the emergence and flourishing of religion, this would not constitute rational grounds to dismiss religion as a fantasy. Making this leap would commit the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy occurs when someone attempts to reduce the significance or truth value of an idea to an account of its origin. Another example of the genetic fallacy is found in the following argument;

“You claim that evolutionary theory is backed by the evidence, but in actuality you are persuaded of the truth of evolution because you are an atheist and you emotionally want to avoid the idea that God is involved in the universe.”

This type of argument does nothing to show that evolutionary theory is false, even if it is true that the person in question is a hard-core atheist looking for any reason not to believe in God. The motivations of the individual are irrelevant to the evidential grounds for evolutionary theory. In the same way, a person who claimed that my religious beliefs were false because I am just socially influenced to believe, would be committing a fallacy. While it is perfectly legitimate to develop naturalistic explanations of religious beliefs, it is not legitimate to claim that religion is therefore false.

This brings us to our last question- is the origin and flourishing of religious belief evidence for God’s existence?

It seems to me that, if we grant the success or even the plausibility of these naturalistic theories, then the argument from the prevalence of religion is severely mitigated. That is why I am not a big proponent of the argument. It is all too easy to defeat the argument by coming up with some sort of minimally plausible naturalistic explanation. However, it should be noted that even the existence of credible naturalistic explanations does not necessarily undermine the argument. After all, it is entirely possible that God uses natural means to increase the tendency for belief. Most theologians have distinguished between primary causes and secondary causes. In primary causes, God directly intervenes in the natural order to produce a desired effect. This class of causes can generally be referred to as miracles. In secondary causation, however, God acts through natural causes to produce a desired effect. This is how God normally operates. Primary causes are much more easy to detect and obviously cry out for an explanation, while secondary causes are much harder to detect and are often impossible to truly discern. The question here then is, given the assumption that we have a plausible naturalistic account of religious belief, is there any good reason to think that God is acting through secondary causes in this case?

Consider the recent debate about whether or not there is a so-called God gene in our brains that predisposes us to belief. Geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer’s controversial book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, postulates that human beings have a gene which is largely responsible for our belief in God. Although some religious laymen and theologians object to the idea, Hamer dismisses any relevance for atheism- “Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity — a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.” 6

Hamer makes a good logical point here. Nevertheless, plausible naturalistic accounts do reduce the force of the argument. It is certainly logically possible that God was directly involved in creating the naturalistic scenarios that are likely to produce belief, but it is hard to show that such is likely or necessarily the case. This gets back to the distinction between primary and secondary causes. It is much harder to demonstrate that God is acting through secondary causes to produce a desired effect.

The argument from the prevalence of religion also has another difficulty. Religious beliefs take many forms, including polytheism, pantheism, and spiritual “life forces.” There is simply not a large degree of similarity between religious beliefs, which tends to erode any sort of strong intuition that a single Creator is providentially giving humans the propensity to believe. If virtually everyone believed in the monotheistic God of the Bible, then the argument would be more persuasive. However, the diversity of religious beliefs tends to mitigate the force of the argument considerably.

Thus, the argument from the prevalence of religion has two major difficulties. That is why I think, though the argument does have a minor degree of plausibility, it is simply not solid enough to be of much use. Besides, Christian theism can be argued for on much stronger grounds, so there is no need to use an argument that is so easily defeated.

Nevertheless, Christians should not be intimidated by naturalistic theories that purport to explain religious beliefs. These theories, even if ultimately successful, do not and cannot demonstrate that belief in God is irrational. At most, they undermine the argument from the prevalence of religion, an argument which the Christian need not support in order to carry her case.

Book Reviews

Time and Eternity

William Lane Craig has written a fascinating exploration of God’s relationship to time in this book. Though supposedly a popular level work, Time and Eternity is a challenging and thoughtful read about God and time that is tremendously helpful for anyone interested in this question. Critics of Christianity often argue that there is no coherent account of God’s relationship to time, and for those critics this book provides a compelling answer.

Essentially, Craig argues that without the universe, God exists timelessly and, once He creates the universe, God enters into time in virtue of his real relation to a temporal universe. This hybrid view of divine eternity answers perplexing questions like “What was God doing before He created the universe?” Since He is timeless without the universe, this question is rendered meaningless. But, since God is in time since the creation of the universe, this helps us answer thorny questions about God’s actions and knowledge of the world. On the view that God is timeless, it is difficult to see how He can act in the world or even know what time it is!

In addition to discussing theological issues, Craig also pursues a fascinating discussion of the very nature of time. There are actually two main theories of time seriously discussed by philosophers today- dubbed the “A-Theory” and the “B-Theory” of time. Essentially, the A-Theory is the theory of time that most people intuitively hold. According to this view, there really is an objective ‘now’ and things really come into and go out of existence. The B-Theory holds that ‘now’ is just a subjective feature of consciousness and that things do not really come into or go out of existence. Past, present, and future events are all equally real.

Craig argues at length that our experience of tense and the ineliminability of tense in language provides powerful justification for adopting the A-Theory, while the B-theory suffers from incoherencies. I found this discussion to be a joy to read, as well as very informative.

Overall, Time and Eternity was a fascinating read that is well worth your time. It is certainly challenging at parts, but for those who are intrigued with the nature of time and God’s relationship to it, this book is a must read. My rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

Unfortunately, the audience question section of the show has been on a bit of a hiatus for the past few episodes, as I haven’t had any questions to address. However, I’m glad to pick the section back up, and this month we actually have two questions to take a look at.

The first one, from Philip, concerns my treatment of Pascal’s Wager in episode 11, where I argue that the Wager should rarely or never be used because it seems to influence others by means of the threat of hell. Philip asks,

“However, what if it was used with a kind and gracious manner? Would that fix the problem? I think the primary disclaimer for your criticism of the argument should be that it is probably appropriate to use it with a person who has reviewed the arguments and understands the issues surrounding belief in God, and now only has a choice to make.”

This issue is a hard one for me to address, because my thinking on Pascal’s Wager tends to fluctuate quite a bit and I have a hard time really deciding what I think about it. The first point to mention is that Pascal’s Wager, if it is to be successful at all, comes with quite a few assumptions. Basically, it requires an assumption that your real choice is between atheism and Christianity. This is the major criticism usually leveled against the argument. I actually think that this criticism can be overcome because I think it can be shown that Christianity is the most plausible of all religions, so that even if atheism is a great deal more likely than any religion whatsoever, Christianity is its greatest competitor. This may seem like an audacious claim, and it does indeed require a great deal of defense, so that Pascal’s Wager is much more difficult to defend than it may appear at first. However, most religions don’t even have, or even purport to have, a truly historical basis like Christianity. Christianity is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, a purported historical event, and it is therefore subject to rational evaluation unlike a great many other religions. Nevertheless, establishing that Christianity is atheism’s best competitor requires a significant amount of argumentation.

Now, Pascal’s Wager seems to be based on the idea that the evidence for God is completely`inconclusive one way or the other. It is interesting, however, to ask whether this stipulation is really required for the argument as such to go through. It seems that the calculation of the decision based on overall utility still favors belief in God even if the probability of His existence is remarkably low. Nevertheless, on the assumption that the evidence is absolutely equal, it does seem that the prudent man would choose to believe that God exists. Even the staunch atheist Michael Martin argues in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification 7 that prudential arguments based on benefit can and should be used when rational arguments do not sway us one way or the other.

At this point many object to Pascal’s Wager because they assume that it commits us to a view of doxastic voluntarism. This is the view that we are able to willingly choose what we believe. The critic might point out that it is impossible for us to believe things by choice. For example, it is probably impossible to truly and sincerely believe that the earth is flat. Even if someone were to offer you a money incentive or threaten your life to force you to confess that the earth is flat, you would still not be able to truly believe it.

However, a careful reading of Pascal reveals a much more subtle picture. Pascal reasons that the nonbeliever who decides to wager in favor of God’s existence should do his best to put himself in a position to believe. Attending church, praying, developing a strong community of Christian friends, and other activities can help to produce actual sincere belief. Conversely, one could avoid reading atheistic literature, associating closely with non-Christians, and so on. Thus, Pascal’s Wager does not really call us to simply believe- rather, it calls us to put ourselves in a position to believe.

Therefore, Philip, if you have all of the foundational issues out of the way, and someone truly thinks that there is equal evidence for and against God’s existence, then Pascal’s Wager might be successfully used if it is presented in a gracious manner. However, I prefer to use it simply as a way to spur apathetic nonbelievers to realize the importance of religious belief.

The second question is from Trond, who asks,

“Why is the christian god the natural choice to the solution of the finetuning/multiverse argument?”

This question raises an important point- many arguments for God’s existence do not demonstrate the existence of the full-blown Christian God, the design argument included. God should be defined, I think, as an immaterial, personal Creator of the universe for the purposes of the arguments for God’s existence. This is all arguments for God’s existence need to demonstrate in order to be successful. Any evidence for God defined as such would surely undermine atheism, at least, it would be a rare atheist who confessed belief in an immaterial, personal Creator of the universe!

Thus, Christians must be careful when arguing for the existence of God and be wary of claiming too much. We should recognize that arguments for the existence of God do not generally demonstrate the existence of the God of Christian theism, and that other arguments need to be presented in order to establish that position.

How then can we demonstrate the truth of Christianity? It seems to me that the best strategy is to argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the foundational miracle of the Christian faith. Thus, a full-blown Christian apologetic will have two steps- in the first step arguments are presented to demonstrate that God exists, and in the second step the truth of Christian theism is established on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Technically, there might be some ways that a nonbeliever can weasel out of the conclusion that Jesus Christ being raised from the dead by God establishes Christian theism, and these technical challenges I may deal with at another time. But truly this can only be regarded as an insincere dodge, because no atheist truly believes that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by God. Any atheist who accepted the resurrection would almost certainly become a Christian. So I think that this general approach to argue for Christian theism is a good one.

NOTES:

1. Evening Sun – Westboro Baptist Church to appeal funeral protest lawsuit. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2007, from http://www.eveningsun.com/localnews/ci_7600202.

2. Religious scholars mull Flying Spaghetti Monster – CNN.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2007, from http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/personal/11/16/flying.spaghettimonster.ap/index.html.

3. Yonke, D. (n.d.). The ‘Golden Compass’ points to controversy. Retrieved December 6, 2007, from http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071124/NEWS10/711240353.

4. Dennett, D. (2007). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics).

5. Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

6. Day, E. (n.d.). ‘God gene’ discovered by scientist behind gay DNA theory. Retrieved December 12, 2007, from www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/11/14/ngod14.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/11/14/ixnewstop.html.

7. Martin, M. (1992). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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