Thursday, July 25, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (14): The Evolution of Religious Belief

Originally, Pascal Boyer was to lecture at the MPS conference on the evolution of religious belief.  He teaches in the Departments of Psychology and Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.  In one short summary of his evolutionary theory of religion, he concludes: "The mind has myriad distinct belief networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people."

Unfortunately, Boyer lost his passport, and so he could not travel to the Galapagos.  Leda Cosmides agreed to speak in his place, followed by Father Robert Sirico, the founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

Cosmides began by suggesting that Boyer's evolutionary account of religious belief is a Hayekian view of how ideas spread--those that are more successful in conforming to the human mind tend to prevail.  Boyer explains how ideas about the supernatural arise as byproducts of normal cognitive functioning.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human brain has evolved cognitive functions for detecting intelligent agency and human artifacts, and consequently the brain is naturally inclined to find intelligent agency in whatever looks like it was intentionally designed.  This makes it easy for us to belief in supernatural agents.

Cosmides insisted that this theory of the cognitive evolution of religious belief remains neutral on the issue of whether God exists.

To support this, she could have mentioned the work of Jesse Bering and Justin Barrett.  As I have indicated in some previous posts here and here, Bering and Barrett agree in accepting the evolutionary origin of religious belief.  But while Bering is an atheist, Barrett is a Christian.  A Christian psychologist like Barrett can believe that human beings have a naturally evolved inclination to believe in God, because God has created them that way, using an evolutionary process.  By contrast, an atheist like Bering can see the evolutionary explanation of religious belief as showing that such belief is an illusion.

Following Cosmides, Father Sirico spoke on "Hayekian Social Theory and Religious Truth."  His main idea is conveyed in the last two sentences: "The battle to see the religious mind as an integral part of the social process is part of the same battle to regard the freedom of the marketplace through which economic knowledge develops and which must be allowed to work itself out without the intervention of 'scientists' who purport to have more knowledge than the human experience itself can provide.  However implausible it may seem, the development of society and the development of faith have more in common than might be first supposed" (18-19).

While wondering why Hayek's writing shows so little overt discussion of religion, Father Sirico argued that Hayek's understanding of social order as emerging best through spontaneous evolution is applicable to the evolution of religious belief.  He made three points in support of this claim.

First, he noted how often Hayek cited religious thinkers like Lord Acton and the late scholastics of the middle ages, who supported the idea of social order as the "result of human action but not of human design."

Second, Father Sirico argued that Hayek's condemnation of rationalist constructivism and scientism could apply to the rationalism of the "New Atheists," who try to dispose of all inherited religious beliefs and then reconstruct all our beliefs as personal constructions of reason.

Third, he argued that Hayek's account of how social order arises from a gradual evolutionary development could also apply to the development of religious doctrine.  The doctrines of Christianity arose through many centuries of experience as an evolutionary process of adaptation and refinement.  He found this best expressed in some of the writing of John Henry Newman.

Father Sirico's most interesting thought on this third point was how religious fundamentalism took a constructivist approach similar to socialism.

As I listened to Father Sirico, I wondered whether Boyer would agree with him that religious belief arises from the social marketplace, in which some religious beliefs by trial and error are found to be better adapted to the human mind than are others.  This seemed to be what Cosmides meant when she said that Boyer's evolutionary explanation of religious belief was Hayekian.

In the question and answer period after the two lectures, I asked this question: Do the two of you agree that atheism is contrary to evolved human nature?

They both said yes.  Cosmides said that atheism is not naturally adapted to evolved mental capacities.  She also indicated that she disagrees with Richard Dawkins in his aggressive attacks on religion.

Father Sirico said that the methodological naturalism of many scientists is contrary to natural human experience.

During this discussion period, Father Sirico objected to Hayek's social evolution as lacking a telos.  He said that we need a standard in human nature to set the telos for judging cultural traditions.  He used the example of the multiculturalist support for female circumcision (or genital mutilation) as showing the stupidity of cultural relativism without a natural standard of judgment.

I agree with this.  I would say that there is an immanent telos in human evolution insofar as the 20 natural desires of evolved human nature set a standard by which we can judge societies as better or worse in satisfying those natural desire, including the natural desire for religious understanding.

In some previous posts, I have used the example of female circumcision to illustrate this, just as Father Sirico did.  This is what I mean by "Darwinian natural right."

These lectures concluded the Mont Pelerin Society conference in the Galapagos on "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty."  As you can see by my 14 blog posts, this was a remarkably stimulating conference in helping me think about the moral, economic, political, and religious implications of Darwinian evolutionary science.  Combined with my "evolutionary tour of the Galapagos" during the preceding week,  this gave me much to ponder as I continue to develop my argument for Darwinian liberalism.


Anonymous said...

I can't understand why Darwinists like Dawkins rage against religion. Communism was thrown off after 50 years due to its clear negative consequences. But religion has lasted for thousands. You would think a Darwinian would conclude that it must be doing something valuable to explain why it is kept around. My own view is that religion makes civilization possible; it gives the only answer to the question of why it is better to live morally than immorally; it prevents the defectors from overwhelming the cooperators.

Roger Sweeny said...

Fascinating set of posts. Interesting that you ended the last one, "gave me much to ponder as I continue to develop my argument for Darwinian liberalism."

The blog is, of course, called Darwinian Conservatism. In American political battles, people who call themselves conservatives and people who call themselves liberals are often considered to be enemies. But Darwinian conservatism and Darwinian liberalism seem to be the same thing!

I'd be interested to know what you think is liberal about Darwinian liberalism/conservatism and what you think is conservative about Darwinian liberalism/conservatism. And how it all fits together.