In “The Evolution of Religion” (The American Interest, July/August 2012), Charles Mathewes offers a thoughtful look (for someone who accepts the basic premises of evolutinary psychology) at two recent books on the supposed evolution of religion, one he regards as a waste of time (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct) and one he regards as helpful (Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution ):
The differences between Wade’s aims and Bellah’s are vast. The former wishes to explain religion; the latter wishes to understand it. A scientistic explanation such as Wade’s treats religion as a puzzle to be solved: Why do people bother with non-empirical beliefs? Why do they engage in costly rituals and social practices and tend so avidly to institutions and structures that apparently provide no immanent goods? Once we’ve answered these kinds of questions, we’re done: This is science in the service of indifference. It is hard to imagine Wade seeking wisdom from the objects of his study.
Bellah, in contrast, tries to ask questions that will lead to further questions; he frankly acknowledges the power of the natural sciences, especially evolutionary theory, to help us understand ourselves, but his aim is always to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our neighbors, not to solve a puzzle and turn away. Each moment in his account invites further reflection, deeper immersion in the realities under study, a richer, more empathetic comprehension of what it is like to be these people. For all these reasons, I hope that future work in evolutionary theory and religion will learn from Bellah’s example, and not Wade’s. Were that to happen, it would count not just as evolution; it would count as progress.
And, in other news, the normal trend of evo psych (which, appropriately enough, is not progress) is still stupidity contra mundum: Religion (did you know?) evolved in part as a defense against marital unfaithfulness among women.
The only thing that’s never up for discussion is whether religion is actually a recognition of basic facts about the universe. Which is why even thoughtful discussions such as Bellah’s will prove fruitless.
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