A professor sums up a lecture on the evolutionary explanation for why religion has been ubiquitous in every human culture:
Professor: So, in summary, every human culture going back thousands of years has been religious because religion is either itself an adaptive behavior or it is a spandrel, a byproduct of the evolution of some other trait upon which natural selection acted. Under the first view, religion itself was adaptive, perhaps because it enhances cooperation and cohesion within groups, and group membership in turn provides benefits which can enhance an individual’s chances for survival and reproduction. Under the second view, perhaps religion evolved as a byproduct of adaptive selection of some other trait, although it is not clear what that other trait might have been.
Student: Thank you for that explanation professor. I wonder if I might ask a question.
Professor: Of course.
Student: Thank you. If I understand correctly, the evolutionary process you described is fundamentally deterministic, and religion arose in all human cultures as a result of that purely deterministic process.
Professor: Yes, that’s correct.
Student: But I don’t understand. As sophisticated modern people, we understand that religious beliefs about supernatural beings and a spirit world and whatnot are false. Why did evolution select for a false belief?
Professor: Excellent question. Yes, it is true that evolution selected for a false belief in this case. You see, evolution selects for survival value, not for truth. Evolution may well select for a totally false belief system if that false belief system confers a survival benefit, and in the case of religion it did exactly that. Deterministic evolutionary processes in a sense foisted a false belief on the overwhelming majority of humans throughout thousands of years of history because that false belief system made them more fit in the Darwinian sense of that word.
Student: So we know for a certain fact that deterministic evolutionary forces shape our belief systems. And we know for a certain fact that any particular belief system may be, to use your word, foisted on us by evolution even if it is false. This is fascinating. Until very recently, almost everyone’s most cherished and strongly held beliefs were exactly of the false-belief-foisted-on-them-by-evolution variety.
Professor: Yes, that is indeed fascinating.
Student: It is also deeply troubling.
Professor: What are you talking about?
Student: For us moderns, especially the elites like those who teach at and attend this university, scientific materialism has largely supplanted religious belief as the foundation of our outlook on the world.
Professor: Yes, that is true, but I have no idea why that would be troubling to you.
Student: That’s not the troubling part. What troubles me is that if we know that our modern belief system is caused, like everything else, by purely deterministic forces, how can we know our belief system is not just as false as the religious beliefs we scoff at? How do we know that evolution has not foisted yet another false belief system on us, in this case scientific materialism, because it is adaptive even though it is false?
Professor: Let not your heart be troubled. We can know that scientific materialism is true because we have sound evidentiary reasons for believing it.
Student: I don’t understand. I know Christians who say they have good reasons based on their exhaustive review of the evidence to believe what they believe.
Professor: Yes, yes. But they have deluded themselves. Their evidence is not as good as the evidence we have that supports science and materialism.
Student: I think you missed the point I was making. You said that our belief systems are the result of purely deterministic processes. Either that is true or it is not. If it is true, then evolution forces us to believe in scientific materialism just as it formerly forced theists to believe in religion. The very essence of determinism is that it does not allow us to choose based on any ground, including an evaluation of the evidence. And this is what troubles me. I read one of the Christian philosophers. He said that if my thoughts are utterly determined by material forces, why should I believe them to be true? And after listening to your lecture today, I begin to take his point. Why indeed should we prefer one deterministically caused belief over another? After all, we say that we know that throughout history, the vast majority of people held a false deterministically caused belief.
Professor: You aren’t listening to me. We have good reasons to believe what we do. Religious bumpkins don’t.
Student: No, you aren’t listening to me. Either determinism causes our beliefs or it does not. By its very nature, determinism is an all-or-nothing proposition. What gives us the right to say other people’s beliefs are mere evolutionary adaptations but not our own? Maybe this is why Daniel Dennett called evolution a universal acid. It dissolves the very mind that purports to believe it.