In “Conversation with Robert Bellah” ( The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2012),
Hans Joas asks, re Bellah’s recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age,
What is wrong, so to speak, with the biologically founded critique of religion? On the one hand, you are deeply interested in this biological grounding of the phenomenon of religion, but on the other hand, you are so sharply critical of certain biological attempts to deal with religion. What is the difference?
It really comes down to a question, which I would argue is metaphysical, not scientific: the question of determinism versus freedom. Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism. There must be some inborn genetic tendencies that lead to religion. At the crudest level, there’s a gene for believing in God. I reject that entirely, not on scientific grounds, but on the metaphysical basis of those scientific views because I think we can interpret the entire biological history of life in terms of creativity and freedom. Consciousness and purpose go back to the very beginnings of life, and if even single-celled animals have some very minimal (what the scientists call) “sentience” and know where they are and what they need to do, then obviously humans have a far more complex form of consciousness, assisted by language, and what we do simply cannot be reduced to a matter of genes—the genes that helped us develop vocal chords and a kind of brain that could deal with language. We owe a lot to biology, but each level we reach has its own autonomy. And conscious, reflective, ethical human beings cannot be explained in terms of biology except insofar as culture itself is, in a certain historical sense, a product of certain kinds of evolution.
I really would push my argument back into this animal sphere itself. In my book I cite many people who argue that organisms participate in their own evolution, that there is an element of freedom and creativity that goes very deep into the biological world. So my rejection of biological explanations for religion is really a rejection of a certain kind of rigid reductionism and determinism that I think is a metaphysical prejudice and does not arise from the science of biology.
It may not “arise from” the science of biology but it utterly dominates it. And that is a fact with consequences.